Does the Size of a Corporate Defendant Matter?


By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

It probably comes as no surprise that corporate defendants face a disadvantage at trial compared to individual defendants. A long line of research has established this general corporate bias; however, there has been little attention given to how jurors view large versus small corporations, so we collected data on the subject in a 2017 nationwide survey of jury-eligible respondents.

The data generally revealed that larger corporations face greater bias than smaller corporations on both liability and damages. As support, let’s look at some interesting data points from our survey on how respondents’ beliefs might impact their views of liability in cases involving large corporations:

  • 79% of respondents believe large corporations are more likely to put profits over safety than smaller corporations;
  • 62% said large corporations are more likely to break the law than small corporations;
  • 70% said they would have a more difficult time trusting the testimony of a representative from a large corporation than a representative from a small corporation.

The data also suggests bias against large corporations impacts the damage figures awarded in lawsuits. As support, here are some findings from our survey:

  • 88% said the size of a corporate defendant would be a significant factor when determining how much money to award a plaintiff in a lawsuit;
  • 78% believe large money awards at trial are a “drop in the bucket” for large corporations;
  • 73% said the bigger the corporate defendant, the larger the money award should be to send a message to change its behavior.

Notably, small corporations are often viewed in a favorable light. For example, our survey found that 81% believe smaller corporations have a stronger sense of community responsibility than larger corporations.

Despite these findings, large corporate defendants should not be too depressed. These data points are the product of forcing respondents to think about their feelings about large corporate defendants. As we often say in our field of work, a verdict is the product of focus. In other words, what jurors choose to think about and talk about the most has the greatest impact on the outcome of the case. Focus is zero-sum. If jurors are focused on one thing, they are not focused on something else. Consequently, if you are in a situation where you must defend a large corporate defendant, the key is to find a way to shift the critical focus to the plaintiff. While jurors have biases against large corporations, they also have general biases against plaintiffs and litigation, which in many ways, evens the playing field. For example, another nationwide survey that we conducted found that 66% would be skeptical of a person filing a lawsuit because there are far too many lawsuits today. 72% said people who file lawsuits often exaggerate their injuries in order to get more money. 79% said too many people file lawsuits in an effort to get money they do not deserve. In short, the opportunity for large corporate defendants is there, but is it critical to win the battle of salience in order to exert the most influence over what jurors talk about most during deliberations.

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