Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only


Behavioral genetics and other “hard” sciences have the potential to wield great persuasive power in both the criminal and civil court systems. Scholars have suggested that testimony citing scientific evidence, regardless of the quality of that evidence, may be given undeserved credibility and unduly influence on jurors and judges. These worries reflect popular acceptance of biological determinism, the belief that all human behaviors can be explained or predicted by examining an individual’s genes or brain. In this study, we surveyed state trial court judges in the United States about their views on civil responsibility for behavior in tort litigation, and specifically the responsibility of a man who experienced auditory hallucinations and delusions that resulted in a car accident. This study is the first to explore judges’ views on tort liability in the presence or absence of evidence for genetic attribution. State trial court judges (n=465) were randomly chosen from a publicly available list of seated judges nationwide, and randomly assigned surveys detailing scenarios that varied in severity of behavior presented (battery versus negligence) and in whether or not there was evidence that the man’s illness might have a genetic component. Judges were asked to determine the legal responsibility of the defendant and related questions including their perceptions of: the defendant’s dangerousness to the public and level of control over his behavior; the causes of his mental health condition; the defendant’s overall capability to take legal action in various spheres of life. Over half of all judges found the defendant civilly responsible for battery (51.8%) or negligence (67.5%). In the negligence scenario, over half (56.1%) of the judges considered the defendant’s illness a biological disorder qualifying as a physical disability. The presence of genetic evidence did not significantly impact any key survey questions relating to responsibility. In the future, evidence of genetic attribution and chemical or structural changes to the brain may support the redefinition of schizophrenia as a physical disability. This could result in major changes in policy regarding the standards for responsibility for behavior in negligence cases involving individuals with schizophrenia, however, the presence of genetic evidence in the vignette was not associated with these views. This study provides insight into judges' perspectives on psychiatric genetic evidence in civil court and serves as groundwork for future studies examining how genetic evidence will be used in court.

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Available for download on Sunday, May 01, 2022