By S. Smith, C. DeFrances and P. Langan, BJS Statisticians
J. Goerdt, Nat'l Center for State Court
* The majority of cases disposed were auto torts (complaints charging
damage caused by a motor vehicle).
* Complex cases involving medical malpractice, product liability or
toxic substance together made up about 10% of all tort cases.
* About three-quarters of the cases were disposed through an agreed
settlement or voluntary dismissal; 3% by a trial verdict.
* Twenty-eight percent of the approxitely 378,000 tort cases were
uncontested, (the defendant did not file an answer to the complaint).
* Half the tort cases were disposed within 14 months.
* Auto tort cases were settled in a shorter period than all other
* Tort cases involved primarily individuals suing other individuals.
* Half of the all tort cases involved three or more litigants.
During a 1-year period ending in 1992, State courts of general
jurisdiction in the Nation's 75 largest counties disposed of an
estimated 378,000 tort cases involving 1.4 million plaintiffs and
defendants. Individuals suing businesses accounted for a third of all
cases. The average time courts took to dispose of a tort case was just
over 11/2 years. Trial verdicts accounted for 3% of all tort cases
These are some of the results from a study of tort cases in State
courts. The basis is a representative sample of the 75 courts where
nearly half of all tort cases nationwide are handled, making this the
closest that exists to a tort study national in scope. These survey
data establish a benchmark against which future tort reforms can be
evaluated. Moreover, survey results provide a baseline that individual
courts can use for comparison.
The estimated 378,000 tort cases were disposed from July 1, 1991 to June
30, 1992, in State general jurisdiction courts. A representative sample
of 18,000 tort cases was drawn from court files in 45 of the Nation's 75
largest counties. The 45 are located in 21 States.
The sample excluded Federal courts, which account for about 4% of all
tort cases, and State courts outside the 75 largest counties. (Federal
tort case jurisdiction is limited to claims that involve more than
$50,000 in damages and in which plaintiffs and defendants are from
different States. About a third of tort cases disposed in Federal
court in 1992 involved product liability.) Also excluded were tort cases
disposed in States' limited jurisdiction court. (Limited jurisdiction
courts have jurisdiction over cases where the amount at stake is below a
certain threshold (typically $500 to $25,000.)
TYPES OF TORT CASES
In tort cases, plaintiffs allege injury, loss, or damage from negligent
or intentional acts of the defendants. Types of cases vary. Over the
1-year period, the two most frequent kinds disposed were from automobile
accidents (60%) and premises liability cases alleging harm from
inadequately maintained or dangerous property (17%).
Other types of cases included those that are a primary focus of current
tort reform activity: product liability (3%), toxic substance (2%), and
medical malpractice cases (5%). In 92% of tort cases, the plaintiff
cited personal injury as the type of harm involved. Property damage was
cited in 5%, and financial loss or injury to reputation was claimed in
the remaining 3%. The majority of tort cases involving personal injury
(64%) or property damage (60%) were auto torts.
TYPES OF TORT CASE DISPOSITIONS
The most common method of tort case disposition was an agreed settlement
(73%) About 10% of the cases were dismissed for a lack of prosecution
or failure to serve a complaint on the defendant.
In the vast majority of tort cases, litigants settled the complaint
without going to trial. Therefore, details of tort settlements are
unknown. Little systematic data are available regarding why cases are
settled or the cost of settlement for either party.
A jury (2%) or bench (1%) trial verdict disposed relatively few cases.
Medical malpractice claims (7%) were more likely than product or
premises liability, auto, or toxic substance cases to be disposed by a
jury or bench trial. Legal
UNCONTESTED TORT CASES
Most tort litigants had an attorney represent them; 3% of the involved a
pro se litigant who represented himself or herself.
In 28% of tort cases, the defendant failed to file an answer to the
complaint. Failure to answer in a timely manner (usually within 30 to
45 days) gives the plaintiff the right to file a motion for a default
judgment. Such uncontested tort cases comprised 81% of all cases
disposed by default judgments. Most uncontested cases were disposed by
agreed settlement (65%) or dismissed for lack of prosecution or failure
to serve the complaint on the defendant (23%).
In 1993 domestic relations cases (for example, divorce and child
custody) accounted for about 4 in 10 civil filings in the courts of
general jurisdiction, according to the most complete data source
covering 29 States. The number of tort case filings has remained stable
since 1986, according to the most extensive existing data from 22
States. (Court Statistics Project, National Center for State Courts).
Federal tort caseloads have also remained fairly constant over the past
8 years. The consistent level in State courts may be related to the
various reforms that many States have implemented to some extent since
1984. One common change has been to abolish or modify the liability
that makes multiple defendants financially accountable for the entire
judgment ("joint and several" liability). Another factor may have been
the trend away from costly formal litigation toward compulsory
arbitration. To achieve speed in complex or technical cases some
businesses are also turning to private judging (for example, retaining a
retired judge to a dispute).
TORTS CONTRIBUTE ABOUT 10% OF ALL CIVIL CASE FILINGS
IN GENERAL JURISDICTION COURTS IN 29 STATES, 1993
CASE TYPE TOTAL PERCENT
Total number 5,929,537 100%
Domestic relations 2,448,150 41
Small claims 732,977 12
Contracts 639,783 11
Torts 572,041 10
Real property rights 439,947 7
Estates 606,722 10
Mental health 90,608 2
Civil appeals 93,339 2
Other 305,970 5
States include: AK, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, ID, IN,
KS, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NJ, NM, NY, ND, OH,
OR, TN, TX, UT, WA, WI, WY.
Source: Court Statistics Project, Nat'l Center for State Crts, 1995.
CASE PROCESSING TIME
Mean case processing time from filing to disposition was 19.3 months and
the median was 13.7 months. Within 1 year, 44% of all tort cases were
disposed, and by 2 years, 74% were disposed.
Case processing was most rapid for auto torts (median of 1 year). One
reason for the relatively short processing time was that auto tort cases
were among the types with the fewest number of litigants (median of 3).
Also, compared to all other types, auto torts were the most likely to
have an individual (rather than institutions) as the defendant.
Product liability and medical malpractice cases had a mean processing
time of about 2 years. Toxic substance cases took on average 3.5 years
from filing to disposition.
Tort cases disposed by a jury or bench trial had a median case
processing time of nearly 2 years.
The longest processing time for a sampled case was 14 years and 5
months. This case of negligence involved 3 individuals who named 14
defendants (individuals, businesses, and a government agency). It was
disposed by an agreed settlement.
TYPES OF LITIGANTS: PLAINTIFFS
Because tort litigation primarily involves claims or damages related to
personal injury, the vast majority (94%) of cases had an individual as
the plaintiff. Businesses were plaintiffs in 6% of all tort cases and
hospitals and government agencies each were less than 1% . Businesses
were the plaintiff in 21% of nonmedical professional malpractice cases,
15% of slander, and 12% of product liability cases.
TYPES OF LITIGANTS: DEFENDANTS
The composition of defendants in tort cases differed from that of the
plaintiffs. While in more than 9 in 10 tort cases the plaintiff was an
individual, half the cases had an individual as the defendant.
Approximately 40% of the tort cases had a business as the defendant.
A majority (70%) of auto cases named an individual as the defendant. In
three-quarters or more of premises liability cases (75%), product
liability cases (93%), and toxic substance cases (96%), a business was
the defendant. Among medical malpractice cases, hospitals comprised 72%
of the defendants.
WHO SUES WHOM?
The most common type of tort case involved an individual suing an
individual (47% of all torts). The next most common type was an
individual suing a business (37%). About 5% were cases in which an
individual sued a government agency or hospital.
Auto torts were primarily individual versus individual; medical
malpractice cases, individual versus hospital; and toxic substance and
product liability cases, individual versus business.
MULTIPLE PLAINTIFFS OR DEFENDANTS
The estimated 378,000 tort cases disposed in 1992 involved approximately
1.4 million litigants. The median number of litigants per case was 3.
On average, toxic substance (primarily asbestos) cases had 14 litigants
per case; more than any other tort cases.
However, for toxic cases involving multiple plaintiffs, the manner of
filing could differ among jurisdictions. For example, a toxic substance
case in Dade County, Fla., involved more than 60 individual plaintiffs
each filing separate complaints. By contrast, a toxic substance case in
Alameda County, Calif., which involved nearly 200 plaintiffs, was
consolidated as a single case.
Few tort cases go to jury or bench trial for disposition. In the 3% of
cases which did receive a trial verdict, the plaintiff was the winner in
about half of the cases. Among types of cases with sufficient data to
permit estimation, outcome varied considerably by type of case.
Physicians, hospitals, and other medical service defendants won 74% of
medical malpractice cases, but plaintiffs in automobile accident cases
won 60% of the cases.
PERCENT OF TRIAL VERDICTS IN FAVOR OF PLAINTIFFS OR DEFENDANTS
All cases* Auto malpractice Premises
Plaintiff 53 60% 26% 52%
Defendant 45 36 74 47
Mixed 2 5 0 1
Number of cases 9,553 4,162 1,148 2,212
*Includes product liability, toxic substance, and intentional injury
cases that could not be estimated separately because of too few sample
TORT CASE TYPE DEFINITIONS
Torts -- Claims arising from personal injury or property damage caused
by negligent or intentional act of another person or business.
Specific tort case types include automobile accident; premises liability
(injury caused by the dangerous condition of residential or commercial
property); medical malpractice (by doctor, dentist, or medical
professional); other professional malpractice (as by engineers or
architects); product liability (injury or damage caused by defective
products); toxic substance (injury caused by toxic substances, primarily
asbestos in this study); libel/slander (injury to reputation);
intentional tort (such as vandalism and intentional personal injury);
and other negligent acts.
TORT CASE DISPOSITION DEFINITIONS
Default judgement -- Occurs when a litigant has failed to file an answer
to a complaint or failed to appear at a scheduled hearing.
Dismissal for lack of service or prosecution -- Failure to obtain legal
service of the complaint can lead to a dismissal after a stated period;
most courts can also dismiss a case for the plaintiff's failure to
prosecute after a case has been inactive for 18 to 24 months.
Summary judgment -- Entered by a judge after considering evidence
submitted by both parties and determining that no controversy exists
about the facts in the case; the only issue is application of the law to
Other dispositions -- Includes cases settled after a jury or bench trial
started, settled after a jury or bench trial verdict was entered, or
concluded with a directed verdict (a verdict that the jury returned at
the direction of the court or that the court entered on the record after
dismissal of the jury because the court found the evidence to be
insufficient to support the jury's decision).
Arbitration award -- Typically entered without appeal in jurisdictions
with arbitration programs associated with the court.
Agreed settlement/voluntary dismissal -- Primarily cases settled and
dismissed and some cases voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs without a
settlement. Types of dismissals were not identified by many courts; it
could also include dismissals for lack of jurisdiction.
Trial verdict -- Rendered by jury or bench (judge) trial.
excerpted from U.S. Dept of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Bulletin, Apr. 1995, NCJ-153177
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