Combatting the Just World Fallacy in Your Trial

One of the challenges we face as plaintiff’s trial lawyers is known as the “just world fallacy.” To quote wikipedia, the just world fallacy “refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. As a result, when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice, they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but often at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault.”

This can lead to injustice in civil jury trials in several ways, namely when jurors:

  • Blame the wrong person for a car accident, believing it to be both drivers’ fault;
  • Blame a patient for a doctor’s malpractice;
  • Denying compensation  because a victim “shouldn’t have been there in the first place” or “shouldn’t have smoked” or “shouldn’t have been fat”
  • Denying compensation to an attack victim at a bar because they “shouldn’t have been at a bar”

One example locally came from the comments in one of the Quad City papers after the Milan McDonalds hepatitis outbreak. Several online commenters suggested that the people who got hepatitis deserved it for eating at McDonalds. I’m not making that up.

This fallacy exists to make us comfortable. It’s uncomfortable to believe that someone can be injured or killed through no fault of their own. It’s scary to think that bad deeds go unpunished, and victims are not compensated. So we fill in gaps out of fear, not logic.

As trial lawyers, how do we combat this?

Turn it around. Shine a light on it. Help the jury understand that unless they reach a full and fair verdict for your client, that justice hasn’t been done. They are justice – justice isn’t going to come magically or through karma, but it is up to them to make things right. Use their fear of injustice!

The hows, whys and wherefores are for a subject of another post. But remember that this fallacy exists, and combat it.

(Howard Zimmerle is a trial attorney in the Quad Cities, with offices in Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. You can reach him at 309-794-1660 or hzimmerle [at]



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Filed under Juries, Trial Practice

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