By Associate Dean Jennifer Wriggins
Issues of race and racism in the U.S. torts system continue to deserve much more attention from legal scholarship than they receive, and Keeping Cases from Black Juries is a valuable contribution. Studying racism as it infects the torts system is difficult because explicit de jure exclusions of black jurors are in the past; race is no longer on the surface of tort opinions; and court records do not reveal the race of tort plaintiffs, defendants, or jurors. Yet it is essential to try and understand the workings of race and racism in the torts system. The authors pose a question that is probably impossible to definitively answer but that is very important to explore: where state legislatures and courts continue to retain outmoded tort doctrines like contributory negligence, which tend to limit plaintiffs’ access to juries, is this because state legislatures and judges believe juries with large concentrations of African-Americans and low-income people will unacceptably distribute wealth to plaintiffs? The term “Bronx effect” alludes to this alleged phenomenon. No other article has rigorously tried to link the so-called Bronx effect with the perpetuation of outmoded tort doctrines. The authors use a complex interdisciplinary approach to rank states in terms of the degree to which their tort doctrines deny plaintiffs’ access to juries. Digging deep into factors that might affect a state’s ranking, they then find strong correlations between a state’s law making it difficult for plaintiffs to reach a jury, and a state’s having a large African-American population and/or being part of the South. This and other findings in the article are significant, bringing to light a race- based exclusionary pattern in the legal system. The pattern of keeping cases from black buries also likely leads to undercompensation of African-American plaintiffs, my response explains. The article deserves a place in torts scholarship generally, in critical race scholarship, and in empirical legal scholarship. While it is not surprising that definitive causal conclusions are lacking, implicit bias may shed light on the mechanisms by which these outmoded doctrines endure. The article’s calls for reform are reasonable in light of the evidence of the study and other torts scholarship.