Respondeat Superior & Public Opinion

Are jurors reluctant to hold corporations responsible for the negligent and criminal acts of its employees?

Judges are sometimes surprised by the biased opinions that jurors have. For example, we were working for the plaintiff in a case where an employer was being sued for the alleged negligent acts of an employee. One of the voir dire questions asked jurors whether they were reluctant to hold an employer responsible for the negligent acts of an employee.  While the judge characterized this question as “weird,” two of the 18 jurors in the box stated that they would be unable to follow an instruction that held an employer responsible for the negligent acts of an employee.

Our survey asked participants whether it was unfair to hold an employer responsible for the negligent acts of employees.  We found that only 39% agreed, “strongly” or “somewhat” that it is unfair to hold a corporation responsible for the negligent acts of an employee. This finding suggests that if 300 people are called to jury duty, and 39% of them can’t follow the instruction, there could be at least 117 of them might be excluded for cause on this one jury instruction alone.
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Our survey also asked participants whether they feel it is unfair to hold a corporation responsible for the criminal acts committed by an employee.  Forty-six percent of the 300 participants, or 138 people, agreed that it is unfair to hold a corporation responsible for the criminal acts of an employee.  These findings suggest that prosecutors or plaintiffs’ attorneys should argue for a more efficient and targeted voir dire that takes jurors’ biases regarding respondeat superior seriously.
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Bonora Rountree Trial Consulting & Research