Federal tort trials fall by 80 percent

I just came across this Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Federal Tort Trials and Verdicts, 2002-03”, released in August, showing that the number of tort trials concluded in U.S. district courts declined by nearly 80 percent from 1985 to 2003 – from 3,600 trials in 1985 to fewer than 800 trials in 2003. The percentage of tort cases concluded by trial in U.S. district courts has also declined, the report found, from 10 percent in the early 1970s to 2 percent in 2003.

The report attributes the decline in part to the growing use of ADR and in part to the increasing complexity and cost of taking a a case to trial.

Also in the report:

  • The estimated median damage award for plaintiffs who prevailed in tort trials concluded in 2002-2003 was $201,000.
  • Tort categories with the highest estimated median damage awards included medical malpractice ($600,000) and product liability ($350,000).
  • In 1999, product liability cases accounted for 61 percent of all tort matters concluded, with asbestos and breast implant cases driving the caseload.
  • Settlements and other non-trial dispositions accounted for 98 percent of the 98,786 tort cases completed during the 2002-2003 period.
  • A total of 1,647 tort cases (about 2 percent) were concluded by a bench or a jury trial.
  • The most common types of federal tort trials were motor vehicle accident (20 percent), product liability (13 percent), marine (10 percent) and medical malpractice (10 percent).
  • Plaintiffs prevailed in nearly half (48 percent) of the tort cases completed by trial in 2002-2003. Plaintiffs won less frequently in tort trials involving medical malpractice (37 percent) and product liability (34 percent) issues.
  • Juries decided about 71 percent of tort trials in 2002-2003, while judges handled the remaining 29 percent. Plaintiffs prevailed more frequently in judge trials than in jury tort trials.