Are teachers and nurses always risky for the defense?

Five reasons why that might not be the case

Lorie Sicafuse, Ph.D. - Litigation Psychology

Experienced trial lawyers know that case outcomes can depend upon the ability to identify and eliminate risky jurors. It is a no-brainer for the defense bar that passionate anti-corporate jurors are high-risk. A distrust of jurors in helping professions – specifically nurses, teachers, and social workers – is another pervasive sentiment among defense attorneys. The rationale is simple: helping professions such as education and healthcare attract highly sympathetic individuals who will be more likely to favor the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. 

 

The belief that outspoken anti-corporate jurors are bad for the defense is strongly supported by research, but the fear of jurors in helping professions is not. Juror profiling is indeed a complex process, dependent on interactions between case characteristics, individual juror characteristics, and anticipated group decision-making dynamics. However, generally dismissing jurors in helping professions could be a critical mistake for the defense. Why? Consider the following five reasons why a nurse, teacher, or social worker might actually be beneficial for the defense:

 

           1.      People pursue “helping professions” for reasons other than a compelling need to help others.

 

Many people choose a helping profession because they are strongly motivated by a desire to help. Many others, however, are motivated to pursue careers in healthcare, education, and social work for more practical reasons. These are generally stable jobs that can be found throughout the U.S; this is especially important for those in rural areas. Individuals are increasingly drawn to nursing due to staggering occupational growth projections, as well as current and projected wage growth in this field. Many individuals choose helping professions because they are seeking stability and job security, seek opportunities for advancement or tenure, want to focus on family, and want to earn competitive wages. These are logical choices that may suggest a pro-defense orientation.  

 

           2.      Looking for educated jurors? You will find them in helping professions. 

 

The position of Registered Nurse is the fifth most common job in the United States, and it is the number one most common job for those with an Associate's Degree. “Elementary School Teacher” is the most common job for those with a Bachelor’s Degree. Social work is a less popular career, but still cracks the top 30 in lists of most popular occupations that require a post-high school education. The average juror in the U.S., however, has only a high-school education. Jurors’ cognitive sophistication is an important criterion for the defense in many cases that hinge upon jurors’ ability to logically analyze evidence and testimony rather than simply relying on their “gut” or making a snap judgment, as well as to understand and follow the jury instructions. 

 

           3.      Jurors in other types of helping professions are often favored by the defense.

 

Law enforcement undoubtedly qualifies as a helping profession. What about physicians, firefighters, EMTs, and Servicemembers? This begs the question - what is it about nurses, teachers, and social workers that arouses our suspicions? It is because these are viewed as traditionally “feminine” or “soft” helping professions? Is it because we believe that such jurors are likely to be liberal in political orientation, and that police officers and firefighters are more likely to lean conservative? Clearly, it is not just the desire to help others or a sympathetic disposition that causes alarm for the defense when teachers, nurses, social workers and the like populate the venire. We must more precisely identify the specific reasons why the defense is often wary of jurors in certain helping professions; then we can statistically test whether these beliefs are indeed predictive of verdict orientation.

 

            4.      Nurses, teachers, and social workers are prime targets of unwarranted complaints.

 

Despite their hard work and dedication, many nurses, teachers, and social workers are met with a barrage of unwarranted complaints, often daily. We all know that parents are increasingly complaining to teachers and asking teachers to assume the role of a parent for each child in their classroom; meanwhile, many of these parents assume no responsibility for their children’s behavior or education. Nurses and social workers also are prime targets for complaints launched by patients and emotional family members, and sometimes by members of the public. The lesson here is that these types of helping professionals are well aware of individuals’ tendencies to make false accusations and to complain and blame others without taking any personal responsibility for an unfavorable outcome. These characteristics are highly consistent with a pro-defense orientation. 

 

            5.      Most jurors in helping professions will understand that bad outcomes happen despite reasonable efforts to prevent them.

 

Nurses and social workers in particular have repeatedly experienced and/or witnessed very tragic outcomes; most also have been repeatedly exposed to so-called “gruesome” stimuli or other emotionally disturbing stimuli that plaintiffs’ counsel may often rely upon to trigger jurors’ emotional responses and “gut” sentiments in a manner conducive to a plaintiff verdict. Nurses, social workers, and related helping professionals should actually be less likely than their counterparts to take this bait, as this is nothing new to them and they are likely more desensitized to such stimuli and sympathy appeals in general compared to their counterparts. Such jurors can also be easily primed to understand that bad outcomes happen, and that does not mean that they, nor their higher-ups (doctors, administrators, managers, etc.), did anything wrong or were negligent. Defense counsel may need to deploy anti-reptile tactics to promote such understanding; however, many jurors in helping professions have the background and experience needed to understand the defense perspective.

 

The above points are not meant to suggest that defense counsel should be quick to overlook the risks that prospective jurors in helping professions may pose. Some jurors in helping professions are indeed problematic for the defense. For example, paraprofessionals (employed in occupations such as nursing assistants, teaching assistants, etc.) who are passionate and attention-seeking, and assume the role of an “instant expert” on case issues can be particularly problematic. Other jurors in helping professions may be risky because of their personal beliefs and personality characteristics, or because of the interaction between their personal beliefs, experiences, and case characteristics. Trial attorneys specializing in medical malpractice are often wary of nurses given the high likelihood that they will be elected as the foreperson or at the very least be considered a primary source of expertise and guidance throughout deliberations. If the nurses are favorable for the defense, they will be really favorable; if not, they will be fatal for the defense. Given the recent COVID-19 crisis, it is also highly likely that teachers, nurses, and jurors in similar helping professions will be perceived particularly favorably by their fellow jurors, and that their leadership potential and influence will increase accordingly.

 

Ultimately, over-reliance on any single juror characteristic during jury selection can result in unintended and sometimes disastrous consequences. Though some individual juror characteristics are more predictive of verdict orientation than others, we advise defense counsel to refrain from immediately labeling those in helping professions as “bad jurors.” A more comprehensive assessment of these prospective jurors is required in order to determine whether they will be favorable or unfavorable, as well as to craft defense approaches to the case that can strongly resonate with jurors in helping professions.