Last week we shared information on a new “briefing book” that the Center for Justice & Democracy released. It includes a wide range of straight-forward facts and talking points about the civil justice system as it relates to tort litigation. Most birth injury cases–as subsets of medical malpractice suits–are a form of tort litigation.
As many are aware, for the last ten to twenty years there has been a large push to enact “reform” efforts to the system. Most of those reforms are various roadblocks placed in front of plaintiffs attempting to receive full recovery for their losses. In calling for these reforms, one of the most common arguments is that having too many cases go to trial is inefficient and, on top of that, juries are too likely to award huge verdicts to plaintiffs.
Are those claims accurate?
The direct information in the briefing book makes clear that they are not. For one thing, only a very small group of tort cases ever make it to trial and are decided by a judge or jury. According to stats listed in the report, only 3% of tort cases that are filed will result in a resolution by a judge or jury. Keep in mind, as mentioned last week, there are already a small number of cases where lawsuits are filed anyway. Only about 2% of injured parties actually file a lawsuit. And only three out of one hundred of those cases involving a suit end with a trial. When taken in context we are not talking about a large group.
The reality is that most cases which are filed end in a settlement. That is because once information is shared on exactly what happened in the situation the parties are able to reach an amicable agreement to end the matter. The need to go to trial only exists in those cases where there is disagreement about the scope of damages or if there is a close call on the involved negligence.
Even then, when a tort case does go to trial, contrary to the perception often creates by newspaper headlines, the awards are rarely mega-millions. In fact, the CJ&D briefing book exaplined how nearly half of all plaintiffs who are successful in these cases are awarded $24,000 or less. These are not “windfall” verdicts.
Proponents of tort reform often cite punitive damages as the main reason to “reform” the system. However, as with average jury awards in general, there are gross overstatements made about the prevalence and scope of punitive damage awards. The truth is that punitive damage–to “punish” the wrongdoer, not compensate the victim–are awarded in only about 5% of cases where a plaintiff is successful in a tort case (compared to 9% of contract cases). How large was that award? The median punitivie damage amount in these cases is $55,000.
There are certainly some cases where judgments are far higher and unique punitive damages awards are granted for larger amounts. However, those cases are the exception, not the rule. And those decisions are based on very specifics circumstances to the cases, including the egregiousness of the conduct or the wide scope of the harm to the plaintiff. It is important that system-wide policy not be dictated by the unique cases without understanding the overall system itself.
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