Opening Statements

Lost in Translation

Posted Jan 1, 2009 2:20 AM CDT
By Margaret Littman

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19% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home.

By 2015 the Census Bureau predicts that 17% of the population will be of Hispanic origin.

25% to 40% of households in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio speak Spanish at home.

35% of Texas residents are of Hispanic origin.

They say justice is blind, but a new study suggests it may also turn a deaf ear.

After compiling 17 years of data from his own practice, Dallas lawyer Angel Reyes had a hunch that Spanish-speaking plaintiffs who required the use of a translator in the courtroom received smaller awards than those who did not.

Last fall Reyes and two professors from Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business confirmed his suspicion: Spanish speakers who relied on a translator during court testimony were 15 percent less likely to obtain a jury verdict that exceeded their last settlement offer than were English speakers.

Their study, which will be published in the Social Science Quarterly, analyzed 223 civil jury verdicts from 16 counties in Texas, which Reyes contends is an accurate microcosm of the country. The researchers looked at different variables, including gender, time of year of the verdict and whether the courtroom was in a rural or metropolitan area, says co-author Bradley T. Ewing, a professor of operations management at the Lubbock, Texas-based university. “None of those factors really stood out.”

Other studies have examined the distrust non-English speakers have of the justice system, but before this no one has quantified the economic reality of possible juror bias, Ewing says.

The authors believe that the lower civil awards are a result of juror bias, rather than a misunderstanding of the plaintiff’s testimony, as translators were found to be consistently accurate.

The study only looked at Spanish-speaking plaintiffs, and it is not clear if the results would translate to other non-English speakers. But the implications for attorneys are clear, Reyes says. The study should help their non-English-speaking clients decide whether or not to accept settlement offers and to understand the risks of testifying with the use of an interpreter. The data will also help in the jury selection process.

Despite the conclusive findings, Reyes believes the bias is “probably a temporary phenomenon.” As new generations become more accepting of the Spanish language as part of their community and as immigrants’ English language skills improve, Reyes believes the bias will lessen.

“I think it will self-resolve. Young kids will not suffer from the same discount.”

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