Judicial Council Analysis of Civil Cases

Judicial Council Analysis of Civil Cases

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Winter 2001). "Judicial Council Analysis of Civil Cases." Alaska Justice Forum 17(4): 5-6. As one consequence of tort reform legislation passed by the state legislature in 1997, the Alaska Judicial Council has begun to report on closed civil cases, using data from forms filed by attorneys and the parties to provide the legislature and the public with information about the civil case process. The first Judicial Council report presents a basic analysis of the forms filed from September 1997 through May 1999. The data are extremely limited but they present a first look at the actual figures surrounding civil settlements.

As one consequence of the tort reform legislation passed by the state legislature in 1997, the Alaska Judicial Council has begun to report on closed civil cases, using data from forms filed by attorneys and the parties to provide the legislature and the public with information about the civil case process. The first Judicial Council report presents a basic analysis of the forms filed from September 1997 through May 1999. The data are extremely limited but they present a first look at the actual figures surrounding civil settlements.

The legislation required the Council to design a form to be used by parties in civil cases. The form requests: the case name and number; a general description of the claims; whether the case was resolved by means of settlement; the amount of the settlement; to whom the settlement was paid; and the amount of costs and fees deducted from the total gross settlement amount to show how much money may have gone to the client. For a variety of reasons, discussed later, the Council received civil case data forms in only a small percentage of cases for this period. A total of 2,034 forms were submitted for 1,685 cases—only about 5 per cent of the cases covered by the reporting provision of the legislation.

The analysis presented here refers only to a subset of 901 cases from these 1,685 - cases involving debt, personal injury, malpractice, property damage, employment and other civil and business disputes. Administrative appeals, forcible entry and detainer actions, and DWI vehicle forfeiture actions were considered separately. The preponderance of cases—79 per cent—fell in the areas of debt, other business and civil disputes and personal injury. A comparison with the number and type of civil cases filed in Anchorage in 1998 indicates that the Judicial Council settlement case database roughly reflects the overall distribution of types of cases.

The types of damages and relief sought centered heavily on compensation for actual damages (68%). Twenty-four per cent sought non-economic damages and 12 per cent, punitive damages. Over half the parties requested costs and attorney fees (53%), and a few requested (8%) requested injunctive relief. (Because a party could request more than one type of relief, percentages do not add to 100 per cent.)

Settlements

Settlement amounts ranged from zero to about $16,500,000. (Because it was not possible to distinguish those cases in which there was no award from those for which no amount was entered on the reporting form, the analysis considered only those cases that showed a dollar amount in judgment—653 cases.) Of the case forms analyzed, the awards in 451 cases, 69 per cent, were less than $20,000 and 543, or 83 per cent, were less than $50,000. Cases that could be identified as torts (personal injury, malpractice and property damage) had slightly higher settlements, with 57 per cent less than $20,000, and employment cases had the highest average settlements, with only 45 per cent less than $20,000.

To refine the analysis somewhat, the amounts in settled tort cases were compared with awards in tort jury cases as compiled for a Judicial Council study conducted in 1996. For the cases judged by juries, only 61 per cent of the awards were less than $20,000. At the higher end, about 17 per cent of the settled cases received amounts of $50,000 or higher, compared to 24 per cent in the tort jury verdict study. Seven per cent of the settlement amounts fell between $100,000 and $499,999, compared to 9 per cent of the tort jury verdicts. One per cent of the settled cases received $500,000 or more; 6 per cent of the tort jury verdicts fell in this range.

For the overall settlement case database, punitive damages were included in only five settlements, despite having been asked for in 108 cases. Declarative relief was included in three awards and non-economic damages in 43 settlements.

Information about the amount from the settlement that the client received was available in 41 per cent of the cases. The most common payment (39 %) was between $1,000 and $4,999, and 30 per cent received between $5,000 and $19,999. Eleven per cent received between $20,000 and $49,999 and 10 per cent between $50,000 and $499,999. The larger settlement amounts went to clients in personal injury, employment and other civil cases; smaller settlements were received in debt and property cases.

Attorney Fees

In general the total amount in attorney fees for the party filing the data form was less than $5,000. (Of those who filed forms, 216 parties, or 24 per cent, did not provide information on the total amount of attorneys' fees from the settlement amount to the party.)

Many more attorneys charged hourly fees than contingency fees, with 59 per cent of those on an hourly basis charging from $126 to $150 per hour. One third of plaintiffs' attorneys charged on a contingency basis—typically between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the total settlement. A small number of those filing forms were paid in other ways: some were "in-house" attorneys; some received a flat fee; and several cases were pro se.

Time to Disposition

Over 90 per cent of the cases examined provided information on time to disposition. About half the cases (53%) settled between 61 and 360 days; 20 per cent settled in 60 days or less; and 19 per cent took longer than 360 days.

Limitations of Data

Because the data presented in this first Judicial Council report on civil cases represent such a small number of cases from a brief period, they should be interpreted with care. Only 1,685 cases are represented, and for most of these (83%) only one party to the case submitted the form. In addition, many forms were incomplete. The original legislation only imposed an affirmative obligation on parties to file the form in a limited number of types of cases; for other types the filing was voluntary. In addition, there seems to have been reluctance, because of privacy considerations, on the part of some attorneys to submit the requested information.

A 1999 amendment to the tort reform legislation now imposes an affirmative duty upon attorneys and pro se litigants to submit the Judicial Council form within thirty days of resolution for the civil cases covered. (Data are no longer collected on forcible entry and detainer cases, administrative appeals, and vehicle forfeiture cases—not discussed in this article.)

On-going Data Collection

In addition to the changes in the collection effort made by the legislative amendment, the Judicial Council has adopted a procedure to review the completeness of the forms at the time of initial submission and to contact parties who have submitted incomplete data. The form now requests a listing of all parties to a case, making further follow-up possible, and the form is available on-line. It appears that the legislative and procedural changes have resulted in improved reporting. The Council has included 3,741 reports from an eighteen-month period in its review of civil case data currently underway, versus the 2,034 forms for the 21-month period discussed here. The Council plans to publish its next analysis of civil case data in March or April 2001.

The full Judicial Council report on which this article was based, An Analysis of Civil Case Data Collected from September 1997-May 1999, is available online at http://www.ajc.state.ak.us/.