The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released figures showing a detailed picture of the realities of civil trial outcomes. Overall, the number of civil trials in the U.S. and the median jury trial award have decreased substantially since the early 1990s, and extremely large awards are made in very few cases. In the country’s 75 largest counties—which contain a significant portion of the population—there were 22,451 civil trials in state courts of general jurisdiction in 1992 and only 11,908 in 2001 (Table 1). When adjusted for inflation, the median jury trial award in 1992 was $65,000; in 1996, $40,000, and in 2001, $37,000 (Table 2).
It is estimated that only three percent of all civil cases actually go to trial; most are settled before trial. In 2001, a jury decided almost 75 percent of tort, contract and real property trials (Table 3). Plaintiffs prevailed in 55 percent of the trial cases (Table 4), with punitive damages as well as compensatory damages awarded in 6 percent of these cases (Table 5).
As indicated in Table 5, the median amount awarded in 2001 was a modest $33,000, with only 6.8 percent of cases resulting in awards of $1 million or more.
Medical malpractice and product liability cases—particularly asbestos—showed the highest percentage of cases with large awards. Although the number of product liability and medical malpractice cases going to trial decreased between 1992 and 2001, as did all other case types, these two case types showed the strongest increase in award size. Together the two types of cases totaled only about 11 percent of all civil trials in 2001. Medical malpractice cases comprised just under 10 percent of civil trials and product liability cases were slightly over 1 percent of the total number of civil trials (Table 1). Plaintiffs won in 311 medical malpractice trial cases, with just below 30 percent of these plaintiffs receiving awards of $1 million or more. In product liability cases, plaintiffs prevailed in 70 trials, with 39 percent of these receiving total awards of $1 million or more.
The figures presented in this article were taken from Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001. NCJ 202803.