NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

When Juries Use Their Power to "Send a Message"

August 20, 2001

Juries are increasingly using their power to demand societal changes. In recent cases against tobacco companies, HMOs and gun makers, huge damage awards in individual cases have brought about far-reaching changes.

Experts say fear of jury verdicts caused the tobacco industry to settle lawsuits brought by 41 attorneys general for $246 billion, and led gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson to settle its lawsuits with a handful of cities.

"I think we are witnessing the emergence of an activist jury pool," University of Georgia Law Professor Ron Carlson told the ABA Journal. "People are frustrated by the inaction of the other branches of government and realize that, as jurors, they hold incredible powers of change and they are ready and willing to wield them."

According to a 16-month study conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the Southern Methodist Law Review:

  • There have been more than 700 cases since 1990 in which jurors pronounced publicly that they intended their verdicts to have an influence beyond their particular cases.
  • The study found fewer than 100 such cases between 1970 and 1990, and only 17 cases in the 70 years prior to 1970.

According to the ABA Journal, legal experts say trial lawyers and state attorneys general capitalize on the trend by asking juries to use individual cases to make decisions affecting entire industries or establishing de facto public policy. But many observers argue that is inappropriate.

"Juries are the least informed, the least representative and the least qualified body to determine public policy," says William Lytton, general counsel and senior vice president for International Paper. "For 12 people to put Philip Morris out of business, what is next? Will 12 people decide fatty foods are inappropriate and put McDonalds out of business? That is a very undemocratic and potentially dangerous result."

Source: Mark Curriden, "Juries: Power of 12," ABA Journal, August 2001.


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