Tort reform activists like to cite the purported glut of civil lawsuits filed by Americans each year as proof that frivolous litigation is crippling businesses and harming the U.S. economy, but statistics paint an altogether different picture. Far from the so-called explosion of tort awards alleged by corporate lobbyists, like the Chamber of Commerce, studies indicate that jury awards between the 1960s and 1990 more or less kept pace with inflation.
The truth is that tort actions represent a relatively minuscule percentage of cases filed in the U.S. While Big Business continues to insist these cases are clogging up the legal system, in reality, about half of all federal lawsuits stem from disagreements between massive corporations, not private citizens.
And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, that’s not the only misconception when it comes to tort litigation.
Of all the myths spun by tort reform activists, the idea that tort litigation in the U.S. is skyrocketing is the most persistent. It’s also a total fabrication. Just between 1992 and 2005, the total number of civil trials in the nation’s 75 most populous counties decreased by more than 50 percent, with tort cases declining by 40 percent. According to the National Center for State Courts, tort cases declined by 25 percent between 1999 and 2008. As demonstrated in a Harvard study, most Americans simply do not file suit when they’re injured, with only 2 percent of medical malpractice victims seeking financial redress in court.
While pop-culture depictions of tort litigation typically involve a trial by jury, most tort cases never go to trial, let alone reach a jury verdict. In fact, only 3 percent of tort cases ever make it to trial, with about 75 percent resolved through settlement or dismissal. In the rare instance of a jury verdict, monetary awards in the U.S. have steadily declined over time, with a median figure of $31,000 in 2005.
Films like Runaway Jury perpetuate the notion of multi-million dollar punitive damages driving companies out of business, but unsurprisingly, this too is fictitious. Of the tiny percentage of tort cases that end up going to trial, an even smaller proportion — 9 percent — results in punitive damages. Punitive damages are rarely sought by plaintiffs, and in the rare instances where they are awarded, the median figure is $55,000.
Tort actions fall under civil law, which deals with disputes between private parties. For more information on the differences between civil and criminal law, check out our explainer here.