Psychological and structural bias in civil jury awards

Published date10 October 2016
Date10 October 2016
AuthorErik Girvan,Heather J. Marek
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Aggression, conflict & peace,Sociology,Gender studies,Gender violence,Political sociology, policy & social change,Social conflicts,War/peace
Psychological and structural bias in civil
jury awards
Erik Girvan and Heather J. Marek
Erik Girvan is an Assistant
Professor at the School of Law,
University of Oregon, Eugene,
Oregon, USA.
Heather J. Marek is a Doctoral
Student at the Department of
Sociology, University of
Oregon, Eugene, Oregon,
Purpose The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, it proposes a basic organizing framework for when a
plaintiffs race, ethnicity, or sex may impact civil jury awards. The framework takes into account psychological
and structural sources of bias and the ways in which they may interact when jurors have more or less
discretion. Second, the paper employs a methodological innovation to overcome one of the primary barriers
to empirical field research on bias in civil legal decisions: the absence of plaintiff demographic information.
Design/methodology/approach The data set is comprised of jury verdicts in tort cases combined with
information from the US Census Bureau regarding race and ethnicity. Statistical tests measure the
relationships between race, ethnicity, sex, and awards for economic damages and pain and suffering.
Findings Overall, the results were consistent with the psycho-structural framework. Where jurors had
discretion (i.e. pain and suffering damages), they awarded less to black plaintiffs than to white plaintiffs,
indicating potential psychological bias. Where jurors had little discretion (i.e. lost income) they awarded less to
female plaintiffs and more to Asian plaintiffs than to male and white plaintiffs, respectively, a potential reflection
of structural income disparities. Thus, the framework and method have promise for exploring relationships
between structural and psychological bias and differential civil jury awards.
Originality/value Because demographic information is not easily available, there is very little research on
race and gender bias in civil cases. This study introduces and provides a conceptual test of a novel
framework for when bias is most likely to impact damage awards in these cases and tests it using advances in
social demography that can help researchers overcome this barrier.
Keywords Discrimination, Demography, Jury decision-making, Psychology and law,
Race, ethnic, and gender bias, Tort damage awards
Paper type Research paper
Are civil jury judgments biased by a plaintiffs race, ethnicity, or sex? Given the historic interest of
psychology and law scholars in juries, finding the answer to this question should be easy. It is not.
Despite the hundreds of studies that have explored jury decision-making, the jury is out.To fill the
gap, we propose a psychological and structural framework for understanding when and if a
plaintiffs race, ethnicity, and sex may impact civil jury awards. We then employs an innovative
method to overcome one of the primary barriers to empirical field research on bias in civil legal
decisions the absence of plaintiff demographic information to explore the utility of this framework.
Unanswered questions about jury decision-making
For more than 60 years, psychologists have conducted a truly impressive amount of laboratory
and field research on jury decision-making. This body of research has, among other things,
explored how various demographic characteristics influence judgments (for reviews and
meta-analyses see Devine, 2012; Devine et al., 2001; Kritzer et al., 2014; Mazzella and Feingold,
1994; Mitchellet al., 2005; Sweeney andHaney, 1992). Nevertheless,the role that a plaintiffsrace,
ethnicity, and sex plays in civil jury decisions remains uncertain. Existing work overwhelmingly
Received 16 September 2015
Revised 2 November 2015
12 January 2016
Accepted 13 January 2016
DOI 10.1108/JACPR-09-2015-0190 VOL. 8 NO. 4 2016, pp.247-257, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599

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