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The Challenge of Winning At Trial In Tort Cases

In a post last week we shared information from the Center for Justice & Democracy’s “Briefing Book” on tort litigation. As noted, there are serious misperceptions about the frequency of these cases, which often include suits by plaintiffs who suffered brain injuries. Contrary to some arguments, tort litigation is nowhere near the most prevalent form of lawsuit. Most suits are filed by businesses and regard debt collection. Contract cases far outnumber tort suits, and yet no one is calling for changes to limit the rights of those affected by contract disputes from holding wrongdoers accountable.

The confusion about the system don’t end there. Not only are far fewer suits filed than are suggested, but the outcomes of those matters is much different than a string of jackpot verdicts. For one thing, verdicts are only rarely handed down at all. That is beccause 97% of tort cases end with a settlment between the parties involved–not a trial with a judge or jury decision. In most cases, the parties are able to see all of the information about what occured and reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both to end the matter without going to trial. It is only 3% of cases that make it to trial–those are usually matters with disagreement about the scope of the harm caused or where there is a close call on negligence.

On top of that, even when a judge or jury decides the matter, their verdicts are rarely large. According to the CJ&D briefing book, about half of plaintiffs who receive favorable verdicts following a trial received only $24,000 or less. In the vast majority of cases we are not talkng about mega-millions. Punitive damages–one of the most talked about aspects of the system for tort reformers–is only awarded in about 5% of those cases, an incredibly small number when comared against both the total cases filed and the total number of individuals actually injured by the negligence of others. In that small number of cases the median award is only around $55,000. This is a far cry from the large, supposedly “unfair” verdicts that are trumpeted by tort reformers.

It is important also to put these figures in context. The truth is that contract cases–mosty used by businesses themselves–are filed more often and often come with larger awards. For exampe, while only 5% of tort verdicts involve punitive damage awards, 9% of contract cases do. And the median award in those cases in larger than for tort matters, hovering around $69,000.

In other words, if too many and too large punitive damage awards in tort cases is a problem, then the issue in contract matters is far more in need of reform. Of course, no one is calling for contract case reform. That is because big businesses (like insurance companies) use those suits for their own benefit. Sadly, they have no problem with the civil justice system to enforce their own rights, but they work hard behind the scenes to restrict the rights of others. This should never be allowed to stand. Be sure that you are educated about these issues and informed about how these tort matters actually affect real lives.

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