Community Characteristics and Tort Law: The Importance of County Demographic Composition and Inequality to Tort Trial Outcomes


  • I thank Jeff Manza and David Greenberg for their extensive and patient assistance, in addition to Pat Sharkey, John Hagan, Ronen Avraham, Catherine Capellaro, Brian McCabe, commentators at the Empirical Legal Studies conference in Los Angeles, and two anonymous reviewers at the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies for their insightful and helpful comments that greatly improved this article. I dedicate this article to the memory of Art Goldberger (1930–2009), a wonderful friend and teacher of econometrics who taught me to practice with caution and respect this science, whose powers of obfuscation and clarification are great.

NYU Department of Sociology, 295 Lafayette St., 4th Fl., New York, NY 10012; email:


Long-standing trial folklore holds that those counties with higher proportions of low-income and minority residents are places where tort plaintiffs are more likely to prevail in establishing the defendant's liability and to recover high damages. Although a handful of empirical legal studies have looked at this question, none have considered the possible role of a community effect of county income inequality. This article tests these propositions with hierarchical linear models of two types of tort trial outcomes—plaintiff success in establishing defendant liability and damage award—using a number of county-level predictors. The results show that no county-level variables measuring jury pool demographic composition or income inequality are associated with the odds of plaintiff success. However, both county poverty rate and income inequality are associated with increased levels of expected damages. The final section of this article offers a substantive theoretical discussion of why we might observe a relationship between community characteristics and tort trial outcomes.