A corporation and its team of lawyers think they have a winning case.
There's no way the jury will side against them. The facts are clear. The company has always viewed itself as a responsible corporate citizen.
Then the unthinkable happens -– the jury returns with a multi-million dollar verdict against the company. Worse, they've been hit with punitives.
Many people then scratch their heads and think, "What in the world are juries thinking these days?"
This scene is played out all across the county every day and is not becoming less prevalent in West Virginia courtrooms. The recent $25 million verdict against Charleston Area Medical Center filed by Dr. Hamrick (of which $20 million was for punitive damages) is the latest such verdict that has the attention of the media and members of our community. The thing that continues to surprise me is that organizations and litigators are surprised by these verdicts.
A lot of things haven't changed much in West Virginia over the past decades. In fact, the socio-economic chasm between West Virginians and the rest of the country has widened.
Juries still are primarily made up of low income earners with modest educations. According to the 2000 Census, West Virginia households earn an average of about $34,000 vs. $44,000 for all United States households. Additionally, according to the 2006 United States Census Community Survey, one of every five West Virginia adults (19 percent) had not attained a high school education. This represents a huge issue in socio-economic terms. Add to this an anti-corporation bias among West Virginians that is as strong as anywhere in the country.
In addition, I don't think it's a surprise to say West Virginia's judicial system (like many areas of the country) tends to lean liberal and is very protective of consumer rights. Why wouldn't it be? We elect our judicial representatives in West Virginia. Voters vote for individuals with whom they identify.
As a result of these circumstances, corporations are sometimes at a loss to know what to do when faced with serious litigation. In such an environment, they sometimes don't spend enough time, effort, energy or money to defend themselves. Instead, they are often left to "hand-wringing" and hoping. Corporations are simply not being aggressive enough to win big cases.
The answer is complex and must be programmatic. A solid public image is vital. Company reputation/image enhancement and trial research are processes! These efforts must be part of an ongoing strategy accompanied with realistic goals and expectations. Only a serious commitment to these efforts will stop the courtroom surprises.
Samples is president of RMS Strategies, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. RMS Strategies has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. They can be contacted at 304.343.7655 or www.rmsstrategies.com.