BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics

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ADVANCE FOR RELEASE AT 4:30 P.M. EDT Bureau of Justice Statistics
SUNDAY, APRIL 18, 2004 Contact: Stu Smith 202/307-0784
  After hours: 301-983-9354

PLAINTIFFS WON 55 PERCENT OF CIVIL TRIALS IN THE NATION'S 75 MOST POPULOUS COUNTIES DURING 2001

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Plaintiffs won 55 percent of the almost 12,000 general civil trials (that is, torts, contracts, and real property rights cases) disposed of in state trial courts in the nation's 75 largest counties during 2001, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The study examined general civil cases tried before a jury or judge.

Although trial dispositions represent a very small percentage (about 3 percent) of all general civil matters, trial data provide information about plaintiff winners, award amounts and punitive damages typically unavailable for most civil cases.

The number of general civil cases disposed of by trial in the nation's largest counties declined from 22,451 in 1992 to 11,908 in 2001.

Tort cases accounted for nearly two-thirds of all general civil trials in the counties studied. A tort involves a claim in which a plaintiff alleges injury, loss or damage from the negligent or intentional acts of a defendant. Examples include automobile accidents, medical malpractice and product liability.

Cases dealing with breach of contract allegations represented 31 percent of civil trials, and cases where the dispute arose over the ownership of real property accounted for about 2 percent of civil trials.

General civil cases involving a personal injury were more likely to be disposed of by jury trial compared to civil trials involving a business related dispute.

Plaintiffs won more often in trials before a judge than in jury trials and were more successful in contract trials compared to tort trials. Plaintiffs prevailed in less than a third of medical malpractice trials completed during 2001.

Plaintiff trial winners in the study were awarded an estimated $4.4 billion in compensatory or punitive damages. Half of all plaintiffs who prevailed in civil trials were awarded $33,000 or more. About 18 percent of plaintiff winners were awarded more than $250,000 in damages, and an estimated 7 percent were awarded $1 million or more.

In general civil jury trials the overall median award (the amount at which half the awards are higher and half are lower) has declined by 43 percent from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000 in 2001. This trend has been prompted by decreases in awards for automobile tort trials, where the median jury awards have declined from $37,000 to $16,000.

Some tort case categories have seen marked increases in their median jury awards. This was particularly the case for product liability trials, where the median awards were almost four times higher in 2001 ($543,000) than in 1992 ($140,000). Medical malpractice jury trials also witnessed substantial increases in their median award amounts. The median awards in medical malpractice jury trials doubled from $253,000 in 1992 to $431,000 in 2001.

In 2001 an estimated 9 out of 10 medical malpractice trials involved a plaintiff claiming that the defendant's malpractice resulted in a death or permanent injury. The median award amounts in medical malpractice trials involving a death claim were 11 times higher than the median awards where the injury claimed was temporary.

Among general civil trials, punitive damages were awarded to 6 percent (356) of the winning plaintiffs, comprising about 28 percent of the $4.4 billion awarded to plaintiff winners overall. Twenty three percent of punitive damage awards were over $250,000 and 12 percent were $1 million or more. From 1992 to 2001, the percentage of civil jury trials with punitive damage awards has ranged from 4 percent to 6 percent.

The bulletin, "Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001" (NCJ-202803), was written by BJS statisticians Thomas H. Cohen and Steven K. Smith. The BJS data brief "Medical Malpractice Trials and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001" (NCJ-203098), was also written by Mr. Cohen. Single copies may be obtained by calling the BJS Clearinghouse at 1-800-851-3420. After release, Civil Trail Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001 will be available on line at: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=559 and Medical Malpractice Trials and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001 at: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=784.

For additional information about BJS reports and programs, please visit the BJS Web site at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) provides federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist crime victims. OJP is headed by an Assistant Attorney General and comprises the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime, as well as the Community Capacity Development Office and the Office of the Police Corps and Law Enforcement Education. Information about OJP programs, publications, and conferences is available on the OJP Web site, www.ojp.usdoj.gov

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