Humanizing the Corporation

Jurors are real people – they have kids, they have jobs, they coach little league, they go to church. Real people like people they can identify with. Real people like people they can trust. And real people have a hard time finding against or punishing people they like. It’s just human nature. So what do you do when your client is not a person at all? How do you persuade a jury to like and identify with a corporation? Humanizing the corporation is often the key to a successful defense, particularly in the products liability litigation context.

Counsel for an individual plaintiff injured by a product, such as a prescription medicine, will seek to play to juror biases against corporate defendants, painting the corporate defendants as impersonal, nameless, faceless deep pocket conglomerates motivated by greed and indifferent to the safety and welfare of real people. Plaintiff’s counsel can be impassioned and aggressive in his or her efforts to capitalize on anti-corporate biases and inflame the jury. Corporation versus individual plaintiff is often not a fair fight. But by successfully changing the framework and recasting the players as two individuals, defense counsel can take away the natural edge a plaintiff often has when litigating against a large corporation.

The process of humanizing the corporation starts by speaking publicly when appropriate. The days of “no comment” as a viable strategy for a corporate defendant when reputational issues and huge dollar amounts are at stake are over. Real people speak. Real people say something in their defense. Corporations must get the story straight and get it out early and consistently.

Once inside the courtroom, defense counsel must introduce jurors to the people who work at the company. Counsel may choose to do this in person, by having corporate employees take the witness stand, or by description in opening and closing statements, or both. Showing jurors that the company is made up of real people just like them, people who drop their kids off at school in the morning and go to work every day, trying to do a good job and working to provide for their families is critical. Allowing jurors to get to know the people who make up the company gives them something to which they can relate. All of a sudden, the big bad corporation that plaintiff’s counsel attacked in his opening statement is nothing more than a bunch of folks just like the jurors, folks who are working hard to do a good job.

The proper identification and preparation of company witnesses is another opportunity to humanize the corporation. Defense counsel must prepare corporate witnesses to be truthful, polite, concise and firm. An evasive, hostile or blabbering witness will do more harm than good. Often appearance is as important, if not more important, than substance. Does the witness appear trustworthy, honorable, and likeable? Can the jurors relate to the witness? A stiff, robotic witness or a combative, aggressive witness will only reinforce jurors’ biases about corporations. As a general matter (and in the right jurisdictions), having a corporate representative – a key witness who has knowledge of the relevant facts in dispute – sit in court throughout the trial can also be helpful in defense counsel’s efforts to get jurors to relate to the corporation.

Humanizing the corporation can be critical to a successful defense. Corporations are made up of real people and, if presented in the right way, jurors should be able to relate to and identify with them. By presenting the corporation, not as a nameless, faceless greedy conglomerate, but as a bunch of folks just like the jurors, defense counsel can successful even the playing field and cast the dispute as one between two people. Doing so can dismantle jurors ingrained biases against corporations and allow jurors to like the corporate defendant in the same way they might like an individual plaintiff.