Home-Field Advantage During Trial
Corporate litigants understandably seek to have trials held in what they believe is the most favorable venue. This often means they prefer to have some type of “home field advantage” to try and capitalize on local familiarity and good graces, and avoid being cast in the trial narrative as a distant out of state corporation. With proper voir dire and a comprehensive jury selection strategy, out of town corporations can be given a fair trial by out of state jurors. But isn’t it better to be playing in front of a home town audience? Mostly yes. Would Amazon fare better in a breach of contract case in Douglas County Nebraska than in the not-so-company friendly confines of San Francisco County? Perhaps. But by and large advantages are typically built-in when trying a case in your own hometown in front of local jurors.
An accessible example of trying a case in front of a home town jury is a manufacturing company being sued in a venue where the company has a large community presence. Perhaps the suit is where the company has its corporate headquarters or a main manufacturing plant. In such a scenario, the corporate entity might rightfully feel as if they will be given some benefit of the doubt by jurors if the company provides jobs to many local citizens and is overall seen positively as a good corporate employer. Jury members, if they do not have personal experience working for the company, probably know people (friends or relatives or neighbors) who do. Another example comes to mind, which is that suing a major hospital with a stellar reputation is an uphill climb for plaintiffs trying to show there was a systemic problem at the hospital or even mere negligence. If the hospital has a positive reputation in the community, jurors will in some way bring such positive impressions to the jury box. Conversely, if a potential juror had a negative experience or bad impression of the hospital, they will likely get excused for cause or the exercise of a peremptory strike, depending on the extent and lasting ramifications of the negative experience.
Another interesting and potentially insightful angle to consider when jurors hail from the same place as the company defendant is that jurors tend to know whether the company is generally good or bad to work for. However, it is not a given that employing hundreds or even thousands of people will make the defendant impervious to searing criticisms of the company during trial. In other words, jurors may think highly of a company but can, to some extent, compartmentalize and believe the company did wrong in this particular instance. Some jurors might know people who have worked at a company for many years and over time have grown to be wary and weary of the company. I have heard jurors say about a defendant company in their home town, some variation of “Well they employ a lot of people but my cousin worked there for a few years and couldn’t stand it. He was so happy to leave when he did.”
Another crucial psychological phenomenon to take into consideration when defending a corporation on your home turf is that oftentimes with positive impressions comes heightened and often unrealistic expectations. As mentioned above, jurors are able to hold a generally positive impression of a company on the one hand while specifically castigating it on the other in a discrete circumstance. The law given to jurors often states that companies are not required to be perfect. This may sound obvious, but to some members of the jury, even those who tend to be pro-company, this part of the law rightfully reminds them to stave off impulses holding a company to an unfeasibly perfect or near-perfect standard. I have seen many times a juror heap praise on a company, only to then listen to them subsequently say they expected much more or better from the company. As a result, commitments during voir dire are crucial from all panelists that they will follow the Judge’s instruction on the burden of proof and treat all parties equally under the law (and heed the perfection instruction previously mentioned). Hearing jurors talk in open-ended fashion about corporate conduct with “fairness” as a backdrop will go a long way towards understanding the expectations they will place on a company. It is critical to fully ascertain which jurors will hold a company to an impossible standard, and bringing this up in voir dire will also empower jurors in the deliberation to shut down fellow panelists if they make arguments that exact an unattainable standard on the company.
A false sense of security can occur when a corporate client, in their hometown, is defending the case and believes that because most jurors have a neutral to positive impression of the company, the company is on immutably strong footing. This may be true. But as mentioned, an additional inquiry needs to take place during voir dire so jurors understand they are dutybound to hold the company defendant to a fair standard. If I were working for the defense of a corporate client, all things being equal, I would rather be away from my home venue with a jury that has neutral views of the company with fair and realistic expectations than I would want to be in my hometown with jurors holding mostly positive views but having unworkably elevated expectations of my client. If a juror believes that a product should not be on the market unless it works 100% of the time for 100% of people in 100% of all circumstances, then that juror will probably expect very close to if not perfection from the manufacturer. In this instance, being the hometown manufacturer of the product at issue will not be enough to convince this juror with a positive impression of the manufacturer that the company should be held to a fair standard.