During a one-year period ending in 1992, state courts of general jurisdiction in the nation's 75 largest counties disposed of an estimated 378,000 tort cases involving 1.4 million plaintiffs and defendants. Individuals suing businesses accounted for a third of all cases. The average time courts took to dispose of a tort case was just over one-and-one-half years. Trial verdicts accounted for three per cent of all tort cases disposed.
These are some of the results from a study of tort cases in state courts conducted by the Civil Trial Court Network Project. The basis is a representative sample of the 75 courts where nearly half of all tort cases nationwide are handled, making this the closest that exists to a tort study national in scope. These survey data establish a benchmark against which future tort reforms can be evaluated. Moreover, survey results provide a baseline that individual courts can use for comparison.
Types of tort cases
In tort cases, plaintiffs allege injury, loss, or damage from negligent or intentional acts of the defendants. Types of cases vary. Over the one-year period, the two most frequent kinds disposed were from automobile accidents (60%) and premises liability cases alleging harm from inadequately maintained or dangerous property (17%). Other types of cases included those that are a primary focus of current tort reform activity: product liability (3%), toxic substance (2%) and medical malpractice cases (5%).
In 92 per cent of tort cases, the plaintiff cited personal injury as the type of harm involved. Property damage was cited in five percent, and financial loss or injury to reputation was claimed in the remaining three percent. The majority of tort cases involving personal injury (64%) or property damage (60%) were auto torts.
Types of tort case dispositions
The most common method of tort case disposition was an agreed settlement (73%). About ten per cent of the cases were dismissed for a lack of prosecution or failure to serve a complaint on the defendant.
In the vast majority of tort cases, litigants settled the complaint without going to trial. Therefore, details of tort settlements are unknown. Little systematic data are available regarding why cases are settled or the cost of settlement for either party.
A jury (2%) or bench (1%) trial verdict disposed relatively few cases. Medical malpractice claims (7%) were more likely than product or premises liability, auto, or toxic substance cases to be disposed by a jury or bench trial.
Uncontested tort cases
In 28 per cent of tort cases, the defendant failed to file an answer to the complaint. Failure to answer in a timely manner (usually within 30 to 45 days) gives the plaintiff the right to file a motion for a default judgment. Such uncontested tort cases comprised 81 per cent of all cases disposed by default judgments. Most uncontested cases were disposed by agreed settlement (65%) or dismissed for lack of prosecution or failure to serve the complaint on the defendant (23%).
Case processing time
Mean case processing time from filing to disposition was 19.3 months and the median was 13.7 months. Within one year, 44 per cent of all tort cases were disposed, and by two years, 74 per cent were disposed.
Case processing was most rapid for auto torts (median of one year). One reason for the relatively short processing time was that auto tort cases were among the types with the fewest number of litigants (median of three). Also, compared to all other types, auto torts were the most likely to have an individual (rather than institutions) as the defendant.
Product liability and medical malpractice cases had a mean processing time of about two years. Toxic substance cases took, on average, 3.5 years from filing to disposition. Tort cases disposed by a jury had a median case processing time of nearly two years.
The longest processing time for a sampled cases was 14 years and 5 months. This case of negligence involved three individuals who named 14 defendants (individuals, businesses, and a government agency). It was disposed by an agreed settlement.
This article was adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report "Tort Cases in Large Counties," NCJ-153177. Copies of the entire report may be obtained from the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit.