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The number of tort trials in federal courts has fallen by nearly 80 percent in less than two decades, a government study found Wednesday, a trend the Bush administration would like to see duplicated at the state and local levels. Legal experts attribute the drop to Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s that made it much more difficult for people bringing lawsuits in federal courts to prevail. “Plaintiffs have been avoiding federal courts,” said Aaron Twerski, dean of the Hofstra University school of law. Nine out of 10 tort trials in federal courts involve personal injuries such as product liability, car accidents and medical malpractice cases, and the estimated median award by people who won their lawsuits was $201,000 in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. President Bush signed legislation in February to have federal judges take most large class action lawsuits away from state courts. In a nine-minute White House signing ceremony, Bush said a half-dozen times that the legislation was only a beginning in his drive to end “the lawsuit culture.” The implications of this new study “are ominous — victims of corporate misconduct or negligence may have great difficulty obtaining redress in the federal courts,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which opposed the class action legislation Bush signed. The number of tort trials concluded in the federal court system in 1985 was 3,600, compared with fewer than 800 in 2003, the government study said. The total number of tort cases concluded in federal courts — those that went to trial and those that didn’t — hit a high of 60,941 in 1999, with an influx of asbestos and breast implant litigation. The figure declined to 49,166 in 2003. The highest estimated median damage awards in 2003: $600,000 for medical malpractice, and $350,000 for product liability cases. Plaintiffs won nearly 50 percent of the tort trials in federal courts in 2003, but the winning rate was lower for those filing medical malpractice suits, 37 percent; and product liability suits, 34 percent. A major reason for the decline in trials: Rulings like the 1993 Supreme Court case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals which set a very high standard for admitting expert testimony in federal courts, said Twerski. Testimony from expert witnesses is often the vital link in convincing juries that an anti-nausea drug causes birth defects, that PCBs in industrial brake fluid accelerated a worker’s lung cancer or that a defective tire was the reason for a blowout on a minivan that killed several people. Elaborate pretrial hearings over proposed expert witnesses are driving up the costs of tort cases, said Brooklyn law school professor Margaret E. Berger. Twerski also said a string of fairly conservative judicial appointments during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes “does not look kindly to this cutting-edge-type litigation.” Bush took his campaign for lawsuit reform local early this year, visiting Madison County, Ill., which the American Tort Reform Association dubbed the nation’s top “judicial hellhole.” The county has a reputation for handing out big awards and allowing lawsuits that would be thrown out in other districts. More than 1,400 asbestos cases were filed in Madison County over the last two years, and it was home to 179 class action lawsuits during that time. A Madison County judge ordered cigarette maker Philip Morris USA to pay $10.1 billion for falsely marketing light cigarettes as less harmful than other brands. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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