NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Race, Poverty Affect Trial Awards

July 10, 2003

Socioeconomic factors like the race and income level of jurors in civil trials can have large effects on monetary awards to plaintiffs, say economists. Thus "forum shopping" by lawyers for high poverty counties can increase awards by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Traditionally, awards in tort cases -- which include product liability, medical malpractice, sexual harassment, auto liability and so forth -- fall as the plaintiff's income decreases. However, researchers found that as the poverty level of potential minority jurors in a civil trial increases, compensatory awards increase as well.

Based on a comparison of tort awards by county, one study found:

  • A one-percentage-point increase in the black poverty rate in a county raises tort awards by $20,000.
  • A one-percentage-point increase in Hispanic county poverty rates raises average awards by $78,000.
  • However, a one-percentage-point increase in white county poverty rates decreases awards by an average of $8,600.
  • In product liability cases specifically, increases in black or Hispanic poverty rates raise awards by $124,000 and $213,000, respectively.

The data point to the conclusion that poor black and Hispanic jurors may have different ideas about justice and due compensation than white jurors of any income level, possibly because of different life experiences, say the study's authors.

Source: Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok, "Race, Poverty, and American Tort Awards: Evidence from Three Data Sets," Journal of Legal Studies, January 2003.


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