COVID-19 Focus Group Research Overview

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By: G. Christopher Ritter

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted communities and the courts, IMS has been conducting extensive research into the impacts on the litigation community. This summer, we convened a series of in-depth focus groups designed to examine COVID-19 issues and several types of litigation related to the pandemic. Our intent with this research is to develop meaningful insights for our clients and to advance general understanding of how the pandemic will influence jurors’ attitudes. We also sought to understand how jurors would view specific types of litigation that may be a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are making key observations from these findings and related recommendations available to our clients through our COVID-19 Client Resource Hub.

A total of twelve groups were conducted across two weeks this summer in Los Angeles, Houston, and New York City. The research was designed to assess jurors’ attitudes toward several types of litigation that are likely to arise from the pandemic. A total of eighty-four jurors—eighty-two of whom participated in the focus groups—were recruited and completed the background questionnaire. These individuals were recruited to match the demographic make-up of three respective venues: Los Angeles County Superior Court, Harris County Court, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Manhattan Division.

Research Design

The recruited participants completed an extensive background questionnaire that measured demographic characteristics and several COVID-19 relevant attitudes. Specifically, they were asked about how the pandemic had impacted them financially; how they viewed the government’s response at the local, state, and federal level; their beliefs about insurance companies, nursing homes, and cruise lines; and their existing attitudes toward customer, employee, and employer rights during the pandemic.

They were then split into online focus groups of six to seven participants from a single region. The focus groups were conducted using videoconferencing software, with a moderator guiding the discussion across five hours. The first hour of discussion pertained to COVID-19 generally, as jurors described how the pandemic had impacted their employment, social lives, and travel plans. They also were asked to assess various government entities’ responses to the virus. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone in the panel had been substantially impacted by the virus, particularly in terms of employment and finances. There were also several notable differences between the different regions, which are detailed on the venues page.

The remaining time was spent discussing several domains likely to see litigation stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Each segment consisted of a moderator-led discussion lasting between thirty to sixty minutes. In addition, jurors offered their verdict opinions toward several case vignettes representing likely cases in each domain. We selected industries for these case vignettes both to obtain data specific to each of them and because investigation into each of these domains promised to reveal participants’ underlying views about broader themes like personal responsibility.

Litigation Topics

The first topic discussed related to insurance claims. Specifically, jurors offered their opinions of insurance companies and their beliefs about how policies were written. They were read case vignettes related to business interruption coverage and offered their opinions toward virus exclusions written into policies. They also indicated which case themes and arguments would be important for their consideration in a hypothetical lawsuit.

Next, jurors were asked about how they viewed cruise lines both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. They reflected upon their personal experience on cruises and their assessment of the cleanliness of most cruises. They were read two case vignettes related to the cruise lines: one that presented the potential liability of cruise lines for sick passengers, and another that discussed their potential liability to stockholders.

Third, jurors shared their perspective on customer claims stemming from COVID-19 related cancellations. These included reimbursement from airlines, sporting and music events, and universities. Many participants had personal connections to these sorts of claims, but they had extremely diverse experiences in terms of getting recompensed. They offered illuminating opinions on each of the relevant industries and the viability of lawsuits against various entities like the airlines and universities.

The fourth topic discussed in the groups was employment litigation. The case vignette read to participants pertained to employees falling ill in a meatpacking plant. The focus group also discussed their beliefs about how employers should take care of their employees during and after the pandemic. Several important differences emerged among the venues when it came to whether employees had an obligation to return to work independent of safety measures taken by the employer.

One of the most intriguing topics discussed during the focus groups was litigation pending against nursing homes. Since most participants were acutely aware of the virus’ disproportionate effect in nursing homes, they had relatively strong opinions about the case vignettes that described illness and deaths among patients. A few participants even had relatives who had been infected or passed in nursing homes.

Lastly, jurors discussed the interpretation of contracts in the time of the pandemic. Participants argued about the importance of following the letter of a contract and about the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. The legal concept of force majeure was foreign to most participants, but after a brief explanation, they generally agreed in its application given the circumstances.

To help our clients navigate the complexities associated with cases and trials amid COVID-19, we have published and will be continuing to publish a series of insights developed through this and related research.

Using the results of this research and our experience from more than 20,000 cases and well over 1,000 trials, our advisors have developed recommendations for clients in the areas of trial graphics, case strategy, expert witness recruitment and preparation, and jury consulting. We also invite you to contact us directly should you wish to discuss implications of our findings for your practice or a specific case.

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