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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 cases.
* 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 disposed.
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 cases.
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 the facts.
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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