How are civil cases handled in Alaska? A report published by the Alaska Judicial Council in 2001 gives a snapshot of civil case data from June 1, 1999 through December 1, 2000—about one and one-half years. The data excluded all domestic relations, probate, and a variety of other cases classed as civil, to focus on personal injury (43% of the database), malpractice (3%), property damage (7%), debt (17%), and other business disputes (16%). The purpose of the analysis was to describe the characteristics of Alaska cases, and to provide a baseline of information about them for other research.
The Council’s findings showed that most cases ended with a settlement. Another 18 percent were dismissed, and 16 percent ended with a default or other type of judgment, including a trial. However, the trial rate, including both jury and bench trials (about equal in numbers) was only 3.4 percent in 2000. This was similar to the national trial rate of 2.9 percent in 1995.
Tort cases went to jury trials more frequently than did other types of civil cases. Bench trials tended to have smaller judgment amounts than did jury trials—perhaps linked to differences in the types of cases that parties took to bench trials and jury trials. In all of the 83 trials included in the 2,591-case database, punitive damages were awarded in only eight cases, although they were requested in 17 percent of the cases filed. One award was required by statute.
The Council also looked at the judgment amounts, for all cases included in the report. For 20 percent of the cases the judgment amount was $0 (or the attorney did not provide the information). Fifty-six percent of the cases involved amounts less than $20,000, and 75 percent of the cases involved amounts less than $50,000. At the time of the report, district court jurisdiction was $50,000, meaning that although most cases were filed in superior court, most concerned amounts that would have qualified them for district court handling. Only 75 cases in the nearly 3,000 reviewed had judgment amounts of $500,000 or more.
The report included information about the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in civil cases. The Council found that attorneys used mediation more frequently than arbitration, settlement conferences or early neutral evaluation. Early neutral evaluation was used in personal injury auto cases (5% of those cases), as were settlement conferences (10% of those cases) and mediation (13%). Mediation was used in 21 percent of malpractice cases, 18 percent of personal injury premises cases and 14 percent of personal injury or other product liability cases. The larger the case, the more likely it was to have been settled by an ADR technique. The ADR technique used also depended on the size of the case, as judged by the amount of attorney fees and the amount of the settlement: the larger the case, the more likely it was that some form of ADR had been used. Mediation, in particular, was associated with the largest cases.
The report looked to see the relationship between cases and liability insurance. Over three-quarters of personal injury auto and premises cases involved liability insurance. Smaller percentages of personal injury other, product liability and malpractice cases (around 40%) had liability insurance. For other types of cases, fewer than one-quarter were insured.
The report Alaska Civil Cases June 1999–December 2000, can be downloaded from the Judicial Council web site, at www.ajc.state.ak.us.
Teresa Carns is senior staff associate with the Alaska Judicial Council.