By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
“Locus of Control” (Rotter, 1966) is a psychological concept referring to how an individual attributes responsibility over her or his own fate. There are important individual differences. Those with a high internal locus of control will attribute success or failure to one’s own skill and choices, while those with a high external locus of control will attribute it to luck or to circumstances. Of course, that is a pretty useful measure for jury selection, with defendants generally preferring the “individual responsibility” orientation of those who favor an internal locus of control, and plaintiffs generally seeking out the victim-focused orientation of those with a high external locus of control.
In medical device context, however, locus of control is more complicated, since there are at least three places that control could reside: with the patient, the doctor, or the device manufacturer. Adding in more levels (e.g., pharmaceutical companies, different members of the medical team, or different parts of the manufacturing company – sales, design, testing, etc.), that control can be further distributed. The correct answer, factually and legally, is often that all of these parties bear a measure of responsibility for what is within their own sphere of control. At the same time, in mock trials and post-verdict interviews with jurors, we often find that jurors will concentrate their greatest attention on one party’s control, seeing that party as having the greatest power and making the key choices. And it is generally not a good thing to be the party in that position, since jurors will scrutinize every one of your decisions and imaginatively construct scenarios of what you could have done differently. But neither is it a good thing to focus only on other parties and to keep one’s own responsibility to an absolute minimum, since that can look unrealistic or evasive. Instead, the goal is to realistically distribute: Take responsibility for what is within your sphere, but encourage jurors or other factfinders to rationally place other responsibility where it belongs.