By Staci A. Terry
Published: 26 August 2011
In the United States, personal injury lawsuits make up a large portion of the civil litigation that occurs in state court systems. Tort claims, or personal injury claims, involve some injury to person and/or property as a result of the wrongful actions of another person or entity. Personal injury lawsuits might occur due to a traffic accident, a dog bite, a construction accident, medical malpractice, or a defective product. Unfortunately, these incidents are all too commonplace in American society.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, over 31 million injuries occur to people throughout the U.S. each year that necessitate a doctor’s care, almost two million people sustain injuries that require some degree of hospitalization, and 162,000 people die from their injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that over three million injuries and 40,000 deaths occur just from the 5.5 million car accidents in the U.S. annually, with another 60,000 personal injuries and 5,000 deaths resulting each year from truck accidents. Construction accidents caused another 300,000 personal injuries and 1,000 deaths, and medical mistakes take the lives of up to 98,000 people each year. Given the high number of injuries and accidental deaths in the U.S. each year, liability for these incidents is often disputed, which leads directly to personal injury claims and litigation.
The most recent comprehensive study from the U.S Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that personal injury or tort trials comprised nearly 60 percent of a total of 26,948 tort, contract and real property trials nationwide in 2005. In the 75 most populous counties in the U.S., lawyers tried over 7,000 personal injury lawsuits in state courts. The report estimates that attorneys tried 16,397 tort cases in a national sample of American state courts. As only about 4% of personal injury lawsuits ever go to trial, the sheer number of annual personal injury claims occurring in America is truly staggering.
The nature of American personal injury lawsuits is also quite clear. Over half of the tort trials in the United States resulted from automobile accidents. Another 15% of tort trials involved allegations of medical malpractice. An additional 5% of tort trials related to products liability.
When personal injury lawsuits proceeded to trial, plaintiffs won roughly half the time. With respect to tort trials stemming from automobile accidents, plaintiffs won 61% of the time, as compared with 50% of intentional tort trials, 38% of product liability trials, 39% of premises liability trials, and only 19% of medical malpractice trials. Judges ruled in favor of plaintiffs in 56% of tort trials, and juries ruled in favor of plaintiffs in 51% of tort trials.
The prospect of winning a tort trial is relative, however. At least half of plaintiffs who won tort trials in 2005 received $24,000 or less in damages, with the median award overall being $31,000. Automobile accident trials resulted in a median damage award of $16,000; plaintiffs reaped much larger median damages awards in other types of tort trials, such as an average of $90,000 for premises liability cases, $100,000 for intentional tort cases, $679,000 for medical malpractice cases and $748,000 for products liability cases. Of course, higher damage awards tended to correspond with less frequently litigated types of cases.
Furthermore, the study showed that when personal injury lawsuits resulted in trials, the parties went through a very lengthy court process. The average length of time for tort lawsuits was 23 months, with 20 months on the average for automobile accident cases, and 31 months on the average for medical malpractice cases. Premises liability cases and intentional tort cases had a median length of 24 months and 25 months, respectively.
Not only were the lawsuits lengthy in general, but the torts trials themselves were quite lengthy as well. An average medical malpractice trial lasted six days, and typical products liability cases lasted seven days. Trials involving asbestos, which are necessarily more complex, however, lasted an average of 13 days.