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  • Defective Food Products
  • Tort Trials and Verdicts Results


  • Tort Trials and Verdicts Results

    U.S. Department of Justice
    Office of Justice Programs
    Bureau of Justice Statistics
    Tort Trials and Verdicts in Large Counties, 1996

    * During 1996 an estimated 10,278 tort cases were decided by a trial in the Nation's 75 largest counties. A jury decided about 85% of these tort trial cases, including nearly all (93%) of the medical malpractice trials.

    * Forty-two percent of tort trials involved a private individual suing another individual. About 39% of tort claims involved an individual suing a business.

    * Plaintiffs won in 48% of tort trial cases. Plaintiffs were more likely to win in tort trials decided by a judge (57%) than a jury (48%). Plaintiffs won in 58% of automobile accident trials, 57% of intentional tort trials, and 23% of medical malpractice trials.

    * The median final award to plaintiff winners in tort trials during 1996 was about $31,000. Seventeen percent of final awards exceeded $250,000 and 6% were $1 million or more.

    * About 3% of plaintiff winners in tort trials were awarded punitive damages. The median punitive damage award was $38,000. Twenty-four percent of plaintiff winners were awarded punitive damages when defendants acted with general or specific intent (intentional tort).

    * The median case processing time or tort cases from filing to the verdict or final judgment was 22 months for jury trials and 19 months for bench trials.

    ---------------------------------------

    Tort claims comprised over 65% of the estimated 15,000 tort, contract, and real property rights cases decided by a trial in the Nation's 75 largest counties in 1996. In tort cases plaintiffs allege injury, loss, or damage from negligent or intentional acts of defendants. About 85% of the estimated 10,278 tort trials during 1996 were decided by a jury.

    This Bulletin focuses on trials because the availability of compensation data is generally limited to cases decided by trial. When civil cases are settled, compensation amounts are routinely not reported to the court. Award information, particularly jury awards, have been a central focus of tort reform.***Footnote 1: B. Ostrom, D. Rottman, and J. Goerdt, "Step above Anecdote: A Profile of the Civil Jury in the 1990s," Judicature, 79(5), 1996, p. 233; Erik Moller, Trends in Civil Jury Verdicts since 1985, RAND, MR-694-ICJ, 1996.***

    This is the third in a series of reports based on the Civil Justice Survey of State Courts, 1996, which collected sample data about tort, contract, and real property rights cases decided by a trial in State courts of general jurisdiction in the Nation's 75 largest counties.***Footnote 2: Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 1996 (NCJ 173426) and Contract Trials and Verdicts in Large Counties, 1996 (NCJ 179451). These BJS Bulletins are available on the internedt at http://www.ojp. usdoj.gov/bjs/civil.htm.***

    The sample of civil trial cases excluded civil cases that were not tort, contract, or real property rights cases. Also excluded were Federal trials, trials in counties outside the 75 largest, and trials in State courts of limited jurisdiction.

    Types of torts trials

    Automobile accident cases accounted for 49% of all tort trials in courts of general jurisdiction during 1996 and premises liability cases 22%. Approximately 12% of tort trials were medical malpractice cases, and 6% were other negligence cases.



    Type of trial verdict Most tort trial cases were decided by a jury (85%) rather than a judge (12%).***Footnote 3: The term verdict is used throughout the report to refer to jury verdicts and judgments entered by a judge. For size and verdict rule for civil trial juries in State courts of general jurisdiction see State Court Organization, 1998 (NCJ 178932).*** Forty-seven State constitutions guarantee the right to a jury trial in civil cases in State courts.*** Footnote 4: Paul Mogin, "Why Judges, Not Juries, Should Set Punitive Damages," University of Chicago Law Review, 65, 1998, p. 179.*** Similar to the Federal rule (Fed. R. Civ. P. 38) most States require either the plaintiff or the defendant to demand a jury trial, otherwise they forfeit the right to a jury and the case is decided by a judge.

    The frequency of jury verdicts varied by the kind of tort case. Asbestos trial cases were most likely to be decided by a jury verdict (99%), followed by medical malpractice cases (93%) and automobile accident cases (89%).

    Litigants

    An estimated 37,561 litigants (plaintiffs and defendants) were involved in the 10,278 tort trials in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. There were an estimated 15,600 plaintiffs and 22,000 defendants. Thirty-eight percent of tort trials involved one plaintiff and one defendant.

    The median number of plaintiffs and defendants differed little by the type of tort case. Asbestos cases provided an exception with a median of 18 defendants per case.

    Litigant pairings

    For each case data were collected on whether the plaintiff was an individual, government, business, or hospital. Similar information was collected for each defendant.

    A typical tort trial case involved an individual suing another individual (42%) or a business (39%). In relatively few tort trial cases did an individual sue a government (7%) or a hospital (8%).

    A business, government, or hospital was the plaintiff in only about 4% of tort trials during 1996. Nonindividual plaintiffs were more common among bench tort trial cases than in tort jury trials. Twelve percent of tort bench trials had a nonindividual plaintiff, compared to 3% of tort jury trials.

    Automobile cases

    Automobile accident torts, which comprised about half of all tort trials, had a distinctive profile of litigant pairings. The proportion of cases in which an individual sued another individual was 61%. Most (89%) automobile accident tort trials were decided by a jury.

    Defective products in product liability cases, 1996

    * Of the estimated 359 product liability cases for which the type of defective product was known, 52% dealt with asbestos or other toxic chemicals.

    * Cases involving defective vehicles such as automobiles, motorcycles, or boats accounted for about 8% of tort trials.

    * Defective construction, electrical, manufacturing, or other equipment was involved in about 15% of tort trial cases in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996.

    * Punitive damages were awarded to plaintiff winners in 5 of the 359 cases.

    Businesses in tort trials

    Businesses were plaintiffs in an estimated 374 tort trial cases and defendants in an estimated 4,268 tort trials in general jurisdiction courts in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996.

    The type of business involved in civil trial litigation generally corresponded to the type of case. For example:

    * Insurance companies were most likely to be involved in automobile tort trial cases as either plaintiffs (67%) and/or defendants (92%).

    * Real estate development companies were most likely to be defendants (72%) in premises liability trials.

    * Manufacturers were most likely to be sued in product liability (76%) tort trials.

    * Banks were more likely (18%) than insurance companies, construction companies, service sellers, or goods sellers to be defendants in trials in which plaintiffs alleged that the tort was committed with some general or specific intent (intentional tort).

    Plaintiff winners

    Plaintiffs prevailed in about half of all tort trials in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996.

    Plaintiffs won more often in tort trials decided by a bench verdict (57%) than by a jury verdict (48%).

    The likelihood of a plaintiff winning varied among the different kinds of torts. Plaintiffs were winners in more than half of automobile accident (58%), intentional tort (57%), and asbestos (56%) tort trials. Plaintiffs in other kinds of tort trials fared less well. Plaintiffs were successful, for example, in 23% of medical malpractice trials and 34% of trials for slander or libel.

    Plaintiffs experienced different out-comes depending on whether the case was decided by a jury or bench trial. The rate of plaintiff success was greater in bench trials than in jury trials among premises liability, other product liability, and medical malpractice cases.

    Bodily injury claims by plaintiffs in tort trials, 1996

    * Plaintiffs in tort cases often claim bodily injury due to the defendants' careless or reckless behavior. Plaintiffs seek compensation for medical treatment, lost wages, and other forms of monetary and emotional loss.

    * In 1996 plaintiffs claimed bodily injury in 94% of tort cases decided by a trial in general jurisdiction courts in the 75 largest counties. Plaintiffs claimed bodily injury in all automobile accident, premises and product liability, and medical malpractice trials.

    * Bodily injury was claimed in 58% of intentional tort and 72% of other negligence trials, while such claims were rare in professional malpractice (12%) and slander/libel trials (3%).

    Verdicts were in favor of the plaintiff in 52% of the premises liability cases decided by a bench trial and in 38% of jury trials. A similar difference is found between plaintiff win rates in bench trials (70%) and in jury trials (31%) for other product liability torts.

    Medical and professional malpractice cases decided by a trial in the Nation's 75 largest counties, 1996

    * Of the 1,021 malpractice trials for which the type of defendant was known, 900 or 88% dealt with medical malpractice, and 121 or 12% dealt with professional malpractice in the 75 largest counties during 1996.

    * Overall, plaintiffs won more often in malpractice trials brought against professional defendants (41%) such as attorneys, than they did against medical professionals (26%) such as doctors or dentists.

    * The median award in medical malpractice trials ($318,000) was higher than the median award in professional malpractice trials ($86,000) that generally do not entail personal injury. Median award amounts were higher among plaintiffs who won malpractice trials against medical doctors, both surgeons ($398,000) and nonsurgeons ($390,000), than against dentists ($80,000) or attorneys ($58,000).

    * Plaintiff winners were awarded $1 million or more in about a quarter of malpractice trials brought against surgeons. Such high award amounts were rare, however, when plaintiffs won against dentists, attorneys, or other professionals.

    Final awards

    Juries and judges awarded an estimated $2 billion dollars to plaintiff winners in general jurisdiction courts in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. The median award was an estimated $31,000.

    Final award amounts may include compensatory awards for economic damages associated with actual financial losses, noneconomic damages related to, for instance, emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, or mental anguish, and punitive damages which are intended to punish defendants whose actions were grossly negligent or intentional.***Footnote 5: Economic and noneconomic damages cannot be distinguished in the data for detailed analysis.***

    Half of plaintiff winners received $18,000 or more in automobile accident cases and about $22,000 in slander/libel cases.

    The median final award of $30,000 in tort jury trials and $34,000 in tort bench trials did not differ statistically.

    Final damages of over $250,000 were awarded to 17% of plaintiff winners of tort trials in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. About 6% of plaintiff winners were awarded over $1 million.

    Awards of over $1 million were received by plaintiff winners in 24% of other product liability jury trials and 22% of medical malpractice jury trials.

    Punitive damage awards

    Punitive damages were awarded in about 3% of tort trials with a plaintiff winner in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. About $463 million in punitive damages was awarded to 162 plaintiff winners in tort trials. The median punitive damage award was $38,000.

    Plaintiff winners were more likely to be awarded punitive damages in bench (8%) than jury (3%) trials. While judges were more likely to award punitive damages, the amounts they awarded did not differ from those of juries.

    The median punitive damage awards for tort jury trials ($27,000) and for tort bench trials ($75,000) are not statistically different.

    Monetary awards and the role of plaintiff negligence

    A plaintiff's own negligence may play a part in causing the plaintiff's injury. In six States (Alabama, Maryland, South Carolina, Delaware, North Carolina, and Virginia)***Footnote 6: American Jurisprudence, 2nd edition (1989, supp. 1995), 57B, pp. 1131-49.*** any negligence on the part of the plaintiff bars recovery of any damages from defendants, referred to as contributory negligence.***Footnote 7: Garner, Bryan A. (ed.), Black's Law Dictionary, West Publishing Co., 1996.***

    All other States, however, abide by some form of comparative negligence, in which damages recoverable by the plaintiff are proportionally reduced according to the level of the plaintiff's negligence. For a description of the different types of comparative negligence and how States are classified see Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 1996 (NCJ 173426).

    The largest punitive damage awards in the 45 sampled counties

    * The largest punitive damage amount of $138 million was awarded by a jury to 22 individual plaintiff winners in a negligence case against service seller defendants. The trial lasted 21 days resulting in a final award amount of $143,400,000 -- the largest in the sample.

    * The largest punitive damage awarded in a bench verdict was $2 million to two plaintiff winners in a premises liability trial involving a bodily injury claim against service seller defendants. The case lasted over 5 years from filing to the final judgment. The final award of $21,280,000 was awarded to the plaintiff winners after a 1-day trial.

    Compensatory damages awarded to plaintiff winners were reduced in 16% of tort trials in general jurisdiction courts in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. These awards were reduced by about 43%, on average.

    Compensatory damage awards were reduced in 36% of premises liability cases decided by a jury verdict. Compensatory award amounts were not reduced in any of the slander/libel trials won by plaintiffs. On average, monetary awards were reduced by about 58% in asbestos cases, 45% in premises liability cases, and 42% in automobile accident cases.

    Reduced compensatory damages awarded to plaintiff winners were more common among jury than bench tort trials in the Nation's 75 largest counties during 1996. Among tort jury trials alone, about 18% of awards to plaintiff winners were reduced by 43% on average. About 3% of damages awarded to plaintiff winners in bench trials were reduced by an average of 32%.

    Case processing time

    Half of the 10,047 jury and bench tort trial cases for which case processing time is known went from filing of the complaint to verdict or final judgment in an estimated 21.9 months or more.

    Among bench trials, the median time to disposition was 18.6 months, compared to a median of 22.2 months among jury trials. Half of the intentional tort trials decided by a jury went from filing of the complaint to verdict in 22.0 months or more compared to 16.4 months when decided by a judge.

    Fifty-five percent of tort jury trials were decided in less than 2 years compared to 65% of tort bench trials. Thirteen percent of tort jury trials took 4 years or more. Asbestos jury trials, in particular, tended to take somewhat longer. Of the 175 asbestos jury trials, 54% lasted 4 years or more from filing of the complaint to the verdict.

    Trial length

    Bench trial proceedings tended to be concluded in less time than jury trials. Except for professional malpractice trials, the median bench trial began and ended on the same day.

    The median length of jury trials was 3 days overall (not shown in a table). Half of asbestos jury trials lasted nearly 2 weeks or more (a median of 11 days). Half of medical malpractice and professional malpractice trials lasted 6 days or more.

    The longest case processing time in the 45 sampled counties

    The longest case in the sample was an automobile accident case with a bodily injury claim filed by two individual plaintiffs against four business defendants. The case took about 15 years from filing of the complaint to the final jury verdict. The trial lasted 11 days. The plaintiffs won $115,275 in compensatory damages. No punitive damages were awarded.

    This information came from a
    USDOJ online article.

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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