Another facet of the Center for Justice & Democracy briefing book that we discussed yesterday invovles misperceptions about cases that go to trial and verdicts. If you ask most community members unfamiliar with the legal system, they might believe that most cases of this sort end with a trial and verdict reached by a judge or jury. That is not true.
Trials Are the Exception
The reality, as outlined in the brief, is that only a fraction of cases that are filed ever make it to trial, most are settled beforehand. This is a sign of the efficiency of the system. After a lawsuit is filed the lawyers for both parties explicitly lay out their arguments and claims. Then, information is collected on both sides to get at the heart of exactly what went on. That information could be in the form of paperwork, interviews with invovled parties, and opinions from experts. More often than not, after that information is collected, both sides are able to reach some sort of agreement. That agreement usually involves one side conceeding the strengths and weaknesses of the case and some amicable settlement decided upon. That ends the matter, without any need for a trial.
In fact, according to some recent data, as few as 3.5% of cases filed ever end in a trial that is resolved by a judge or jury. Therefore, the claims made by proponents of tort reform about a system run amok with juries reaching unfair verdicts and vast inefficiency in the system do not mesh with the facts. That is because the facts show that most cases end in agreements between both sides.
On top of that, the evidence on the system-wide outcome of these cases is far different than is often portrayed by those calling for widespread changes in the civil justice system. For example, as discussed in the CJ&D briefing book, plaintiffs are successful at trial only in 51-56% of cases. This roughly equal split is what one might expect considering that the cases that go to trial are often the closest ones, where both sides have valid points, and impartial third parties are needed to break the disagreement. That percentage would be far different if the cases were mostly frivolous or if juries were always unfairly slanted toward the plaintiff.
And even when they do win, plaintiffs rarely received the sort of large verdicts that make newspaper headlines. Statistics reveal that the about half of plaintiffs who receives a favorable verdict in a tort case is awarded $24,000 or less. The median figure in these cases each year is somewhere around $31,000.
What about punitive damages? These are the awards that go beyond specific compensatory issues like medical bills or pain and suffering. Instead, these awards are meant to punish the wrongdoer, not necessarily help the plaintiff recoup losses. These awards are often targeted by tort reformers as evidence of the unfair nature of the juries and the “windfalls” that go to plaintiffs. As with everything else, the facts suggest otherwise. Far all the attention that punitive damages receive, less than 3% of cases where the case went to trial and the plaintiff’s were successful (already a small number) end with any sort of punitive damage award. And what was the size of the award? According to the briefing book, the average punitive damage award was for $55,000.
None of these statistics are indicative of a system run amok or one that has gotten out of hand. Instead, when faced with this reality, residents should be reminded not to buy into bogus claims made by those who stand to benefit from tort reform at the expense of the legal rights for all consumers.
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