Madison County residents paid $90 for Jablonski v. Ford opinions

Ann Knef Apr. 28, 2005, 11:44am

James Feeney

Kurt Rushing

Jurors contacted in the wake of a recent $43 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. did not want to talk about their monumental decision.

“It’s over and done with,” said juror Roy Bennington by phone. “I don’t think I want to comment. Mum’s the word.” Then he hung up on a reporter who called him at his Granite City home.

But longtime Madison County resident Nanette Clark of Edwardsville was anxious to talk about the verdict.

Last November, Clark was among a controlled sample of county residents who were paid $90 in cash to participate in a survey of evidence related to Jablonski v. Ford at Gateway Convention Center in Collinsville.

Two weeks ago, a Madison County jury found Ford negligent for injuries Dora Jablonski sustained in a fiery crash in July 2003, and the death of her husband, John Jablonski Sr. The stationary Lincoln Town Car the Jablonskis were in was struck at 65 miles per hour by another vehicle and burst into flames.

It remains unclear whether the focus group survey was sponsored by plaintiff's attorney Bradley Lakin of the Lakin Law Firm of Wood River--or defendant, Ford Motor Co.

Ford attorney James Feeney of Dykema & Gossett in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., would neither confirm nor deny its participation in the survey.

Lakin did not return a phone call.

At the mock trial held on Nov. 18, Clark and approximately 150 participants viewed plaintiff’s and defendant’s evidence and were asked to answer questions such as, “Who was at fault?” and “What would you rule in the case?” in a survey more than 20 pages long. Based on the stacks of completed surveys which were grouped for the plaintiff and for the defendant, Clark said it appeared that participants' minds were split.

“The piles looked to be about 50/50,” she said.

Testing makes 'perfect sense'

Kurt Rushing, director of business development for Southern Research Group in Jackson, Miss., said testing arguments in carefully controlled focus groups is becoming common practice in high stakes trials across the country.

"Many cases are riding on closing arguments," he said. "It makes perfect sense to see how well arguments are received in a test setting."

Rushing, whose marketing research firm has seen a significant increase in legal business in the last two-and-a-half years, said the use of focus groups is employed by plaintiff's and defense attorneys, district attorneys and third parties.

"I've seen it done on all ends," he said.

Focus group studies are usually conducted "at the last minute" and the amount of money participants are paid depends on the market.

In smaller markets, the range is $50-100, he said. In metropolitan areas, participants are paid up to $250.

"When you're in an upscale area there has to be an incentive," he said.

"There is a methodology in recruiting for focus groups," said Rushing. "Demographics is the fascinating part."

A focus group is commonly "over-recruited" for certain types of people--by gender, ethnicity or age--depending on what a typical jury looks like in a given venue. In order to achieve results with small margins of error, individuals who would be disqualified on a real trial because of a particular bias would also be exempt from a focus group.

"That's by design," Rushing said.

An employee at Gateway Convention Center confirmed the focus group was held there on Nov. 18, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Los Angeles-based consulting firm Mattson & Sherrod booked the event. A phone call to its office was not returned.

"People enjoy having their opinions heard," Rushing said. "And to get paid...sometimes people can't believe someone is paying them for their opinion."

Mock Jurors paid in cash

“I ruled against the plaintiff,” Clark said after she and the others reviewed case evidence.

“I got really mad when I overheard two men in front of me in line. They said that clearly Ford was not at fault, but the woman needs to be taken care of,” Clark said.

Clark said cash was given to participants at the end of the evening in a plain envelope.

She did not know who sponsored the focus group study, and said she was not allowed to talk about it until after the trial was over.

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