By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It is one thing to know an act has a chance of resulting in harm, and it's another to intend that harm to occur. Or is it? Consider the example of a company that is aware of a small risk of electric shock if repairs are done without powering off a piece of equipment. If the company sends an employee to make that repair anyway, would jurors say that company intended the injury to occur? It turns out, it depends on how you ask the question. A new study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (Mueller, Solan & Darley, 2012) looked at exactly that scenario and found that, while research participants were generally able to see distinctions between varying degrees of liability (e.g., negligence versus willful disregard and intent), when asked to make a binary choice regarding intent, they tended to treat just about any level of knowledge as proof of intent. The tree of knowledge, in other words, bears the fruit of intent.
The challenge with any concept as subjective as "intent" is that jurors and judges end up with few, if any, foolproof cues, and instead they need to rely on their own projections. In the study, participants were asked to look at a scenario and assign consequences for the employer in deciding whether its acts were intentional or not. In that setting, the researchers found that participants' "'hot' moral judgments play a larger role than do their 'cold' cognitive categorizations." That means that the ability to understand a legal distinction won't always translate into a willingness to apply that distinction in practice. This post takes a look at this interesting new study on the ways jurors handle intent, and provides some practical advice for handling the distinctions in intent required by your case.