Kyla Asbury Jan. 14, 2014, 4:30pm

CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - Americans disagree with current practices in class actions lawsuits, according to a poll commissioned by defense attorneys.

Americans also continue to express significant doubt in the fairness of the civil justice system and do not seem convinced there is a funding crisis in the judiciary, according to the poll.

The annual poll is devoted to the civil justice system and is commissioned by DRI's Center for Law and Public Policy. DRI is the voice of the defense bar.

The poll was conducted by Langer Research Associates of New York and was a telephone survey based upon a national, random, scientific sample of adults.

Twenty-six percent of participants said showing the potential for harm should be adequate to join a class action lawsuit; more than two-thirds said individuals should be permitted to join a class action lawsuit only if they can show they have actually been harmed.

Eighty-five percent said class action lawyers should be required to obtain permission from individuals before enrolling them as plaintiffs. Only 10 percent support the current practice of allowing lawyers to include individuals whom they believe are eligible without getting their permission first, then providing them the opportunity to opt out later.

Only 10 percent support the use of coupon settlements in class actions, which is where lawyers are paid cash, while the plaintiffs simply receive comparatively low-value coupons redeemable for products or services.

Eighty-three percent of participants believe cash payments to plaintiffs should be required.

"What is surprising about these results, is the breadth of disagreement with current practice," said DRI President Mike Weston. "Usually, on questions of justice, civil or criminal, one will find that orientations vary by demographic characteristics. Not so here. Large majorities across all 12 of our demographic categories disagree with these three current practices."

While the civil justice system enjoys the confidence of a majority, there appears to be serious doubt in a significant portion of Americans.

Public confidence in the civil justice system is down slightly from last year's poll - from 58 percent to 56 percent.

Only seven percent are "very confident" in the civil law system, which is down from nine percent in last year's poll.

While these declines in public confidence are not statistically significant, they bear watching should the trend continue, according to DRI.

The public does not appear convinced that there is a serious funding shortfall for the judiciary, according to the poll.

Forty percent of participants believe the civil courts in their state have all the funding they need to do their job adequately; an identical 40 percent say these courts are short of needed funding, with the rest unsure.

"This is stunning," said Sky Woodward, chair of DRI's Center for Law and Public Policy. "Literally hundreds of news articles and segments on the funding crisis, the curtailment of judicial services, trial delays, and very public warnings don't seem to have had an impact on the public consciousness. While it may be that the courts are rarely used by the majority of citizens, we have to do a better job of explaining to the public that, whether or not they use them personally, the courts have a direct impact on their lives and livelihoods."

Continuing a line of questioning begun last year, the DRI Poll asked respondents to imagine they were on a jury in a civil case in which an individual sued a corporation.

In this year's poll, 54 percent said that, all else being equal, they would be inclined to favor the individual, essentially the same figure from the 2012 poll.

Measuring potential bias toward particular sectors, respondents said that if the defending party were an insurance company, 58 percent would be inclined to favor the individual; if a bank, 56 percent; and if a pharmaceutical firm, 53 percent.

"What this shows, is that people have a proclivity to picks sides, either for the plaintiff or for the defendant " said John R. Kouris, DRI executive director. "Those who did not express a preference for one side or another were a small minority, rarely as high as 20 percent in any demographic category. Judges and attorneys need to be aware of this."

Forty-six percent of participants would prefer their case to be heard by a jury, 24 percent would prefer a judge and 22 percent would prefer an arbitrator.

The telephone survey was taken via landline and cell phone interviews with a random national sample of 1,005 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the full sample.

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