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Roughly half of the number of civil cases go to trial in the nation’s state courts than did so a decade ago. That’s just one of several statistics that both belie and confirm common fears and assumptions about civil litigation. The numbers come from a recently published report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), based on data collected by the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Statistics Project. Only 11,908 civil cases went to trial in 2001 compared with 22,451 in 1992. That represents a decrease of about 5% a year. Filings have increased about 1% a year, roughly equal to population growth in that same period, according to “Examining the Work of State Courts, 2003,” an NCSC study. The BJS report, “Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001,” looks only at cases in courts of general jurisdiction in 2001 in 46 randomly selected counties in 22 states that are weighted to represent the 75 most populous counties in the U.S. It contrasts those findings to 1992 and 1996 when possible. The 2001 statistics are the latest available. The overall median award for civil jury trial was almost halved-from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000. About half of plaintiffs who won were awarded $33,000 or more, and 6.6% won more than $1 million. Punitive damages were awarded in about 6% of trials. Two-thirds of the civil cases involved tort claims. Plaintiffs won 55% of the time, and prevailed more often before judges (about two-thirds of the time) than juries. But plaintiffs won just 27% of medical malpractice trials. The median awards for products liability cases shot up to $450,000 from $140,000 over the decade, but represented only 1.3% of trials. Punitive damages were awarded in only three of the 70 products liability cases won by plaintiffs. The number of malpractice cases remained steady, and accounted for about 10% of all trials. But in the last decade the award median almost doubled, from $253,000 to $422,000. Nine out of 10 medical malpractice cases involved death (33%) or permanent injury. Theodore Eisenberg, a Cornell Law School professor who was not associated with the study, said that the data demonstrate that “the notion of ever-increasing tort awards is just nonsense.” He added: “[The raw data also] suggests that there is no significant difference between the ratio of punitive and compensatory damages whether awarded by judges or juries, which echoes the findings for the same counties in 1996.”

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