An astounding four out of ten Americans have been invited to participate in a class action suit. Fifteen percent, the equivalent of 36 million people, actually participated in one, and most do not appear to be doing it for the money. Of the 70 percent receiving a financial award, 73 percent termed it insignificant. Their motivation might lie in the fact that 65 percent thought class action suits made corporations more responsible. These are some of the surprising results from the DRI National Poll on the Civil Justice System.

The poll also showed that large numbers of Americans doubt the fairness of civil courts and a majority— sometimes substantial majorities— admit that personal biases could affect their decisions as jurors.

In terms of confidence in the civil courts, only nine percent of respondents indicated that they were very confident that the results in civil courts are “just and fair” while 16 percent expressed no confidence that the results were fair. Eighty-three percent say that the side with the most money for lawyers usually wins. This holds true for all demographic groups: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, and conservatives. On the other hand, the 58 percent who expressed confidence in court decisions places the civil courts far ahead of Congress, the presidency, and even the church in other recent confidence polls.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that majorities of respondents freely admitted that, in certain instances, their personal biases could affect their decisions as jurors. For instance, 57–59 percent say they would be inclined as jurors to favor individuals in cases against an insurance, oil, or financial company. Fifty-two percent said that if they had a bad consumer experience with a litigant, it could influence their decision as a juror.

In an interesting and perhaps counterintuitive response, the poll found that 64 percent prefer jury trials to bench trials even though 48 percent feel juries make decisions based upon personal opinion rather than facts and the law. Alternatively, 69 percent feel that judges base their decisions on facts and the law rather than personal opinion.

In an encouraging response, 75 percent of Americans see jury service as a civic duty rather than a burden and of those who had served, 81 percent say the experience was a positive one.

The above findings come from an independent, nonpartisan, national telephone survey conducted in August 2012 among a random scientific sample of adults. It employed rigorous methodology and balanced question wording to assess public attitudes on issues in civil law. It was conducted by Langer Research Associates, New York. Gary Langer is the former head of polling for ABC News and subscribes to the Code of Professional Ethics and Practices of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the Principles of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

For the full report of the national survey as well as downloadable graphs and charts, please click here to go to the website for DRI’s Center for Law and Public Policy. For purposes of transparency and accessibility, a full data set of the survey and methodology will be available to journalists and researchers through the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

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