The Debate over Jury Performance

Observations From A Recent Asbestos Case

by Molly Selvin, Larry Picus

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Recent verdicts in lawsuits arising from widespread exposure to toxic substances and large compensatory and punitive awards in traditional liability cases have revived debates and complaints about the competency of lay jurors. This case study describes an interview conducted with the jury that decided an asbestos products liability case in Texas in 1984. After deliberating one day, the jury found each defendant liable and awarded the four plaintiffs $7.9 million. The legal issues raised in the Newman trial, the claims made, and the witnesses and evidence on each side are typical of those raised in other asbestos jury trials. According to experimental research, jurors do not have full or accurate memories for trial testimony. The Newman panel behavior is consonant with experimentally based observations, but that does not explain why the panel reached its specific decision. In some ways, most notably how it computed its large compensatory damage awards, its behavior was inconsistent with previous findings about jury behavior.

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