The Truth About Torts & Trials

Yesterday we shared information on the latest briefing book from the Center for Justice & Democracy. The book offers straightforward information about the state of the civil justice system in the U.S., partiularly as it relates to tort cases. Considering the frequent challenges to the rights of plaintiffs in these cases, it is incredibly important to spread information about the reality of these suits.

For one thing there are far fewer trials and successful plaintiff verdicts that most community members believe. As outlined in the brief, according to the most recently available data, only about 3.5% of all tort cases end in a decision by a judge or jury. That means that the vast majority of cases involve agreement and settlement between the parties without the need for a trial. Also, this number is actually declining. A recent analysis found that the rate of tort cases going to trial declined by nearly 32% over a recent ten year period. Certain types of tort cases–like product liability matters–decreased even more over that stretch, by over 47%.

In other words, as our attorneys know, the system works efficiently to bring the parties together, ensure that all the accurate information about the situation is on the table, and facilitates a discussion so that accountability is had where necessary. In those small number of cases where the parties cannot agree on a resolution, then the judge and jury is there to settle the disagreement.

On top of that, far from the image often portrayed by tort reform advocates, judges and juries are not frequently in the business of awarding vast sums of money to plaintiffs whenever a case goes to trial. Most research shows that the rate of plaintiff success in these cases has been roughly stable for many years, anywhere from 51-56% success rates. That means, as expected, that the matters are split roughly even, with a slight advantage for plaintiffs. That is to be expected if cases are brought for genuine disagreements or close issues of negligence. If countless frivolous lawsuits were filed, then the rate would be far different.

And what are those plaintiffs winning?

If news stories are to be believed, then the vast majority of these cases result in mega-million winnings for plaintiffs who probably don’t need that much. As you might expect, this is nothing more than a caricature.

The reality is that the about half of all winning plaintiff in a tort case received around $24,000 or less for damages in the matter. The median winning damage amount for plaintiff year over year has hovered around slightly over $30,000. In other words, we are almost never talking about jackpot cases where individuals are unjustly enriched. The civil justice system is instead about fairly compensating those harmed by others. The stories often shared to the contrary are nothing more than outliers. They usually receive exaggerated attention because of their uniqueness, not because they representative of anything about the justice system as a whole.

What about punitive damages?

Court records indicate that they are awarded in about 3% of cases that reach trial (a fraction of the total). Even then, the average punitive damage award is about $55,000. In fact, punitive damages awards are given out more frequently (and in larger amounts) for contract cases. These contract cases are used by businesses themselves, and, not surprisingly, those businesses don’t for a second mention that special “reform” efforts are needed to curb contract litigation.

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