Have you ever been injured or know someone who has been injured? After the accident/injury, did anybody tell you that you should sue so you could win millions of dollars at trial?
While this is the common misconception of how tort law and trials work, it is not realistic to expect to be able to sue someone every time you are injured. In addition, it relatively uncommon for a case to go to trial.
What is a "Tort"
The word “tort” is a legal term that simply means any wrongfully inflicted injury for which the law provides a remedy.
What is Realistic for a Tort Case
Even if a case does go to trial, the chances of winning a settlement of a ten million dollars are probably similar to your chances of winning the same amount in the lottery. While million dollar settlements are not unheard of, they are not an everyday occurrence in tort cases. In order to provide a more accurate picture of tort law statistics, the U.S. Department of Justice performed a survey in state courts of the 75 most populous counties in 2005. See Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Tort Bench and Jury Trials in State Courts, 2005, 1, NCJ228129 (November 2009), available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/tbjtsc05.pdf.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, researched tort statistics in 1996 and 2005. See id. Milwaukee County is one of the 75 most populous counties in the nation and therefore Milwaukee specific statistics were included in the study. Before looking specifically at Milwaukee numbers, it may be helpful to understand the overall data across the U.S. for purposes of comparison. A link to the article is included here and all the Milwaukee statistics are located in Appendices Tables 3-5. Id. at 19-21.
In 2005, tort cases made up around 60% of the total 26,948 tort, contract, and real property cases. Id. at 1. Of the tort cases, only approximately 4% went to trial. Id. Of those that did go to trial, 90% were jury trials and only 10% bench trials. Id. The study also broke down the data on torts into categories including: automobile accident, premises liability, product liability, intentional torts, malpractice, and other/unknown category. Id. at 2.The other/unknown category included incidents involving animal attack, slander and libel, false arrest, imprisonment, conversion, and any other torts that did not fit into the other categories. Id. Automobile accidents comprised the majority of tort cases, with an average of about 60% of the total. Id. Next, medical malpractice cases made up approximately 15% followed by premises liability at 11%. Id. The other categories had lower percentages such as 2% for product liability. Id. The types of cases relate to the amount a plaintiff may recover.
The myth about a million dollar recovery on every personal injury case was confirmed this study. Of all tort trials, 51.6% of plaintiffs won their case. Id. at 4. The final award amount for plaintiff winners differed depending on the type of case. For example, automobile accidents had a median award of $15,000 while asbestos product liability cases, which typically result in death, were closer to $682,000. Id. at 5, Table 5. The average recovery among plaintiff winners in tort trials was $24,000. Id.
Another misconception in tort law is that you can file a personal injury lawsuit, win the case, and see your money in a few short months. Id. at 13. The study compared turnaround of tort cases from initial filing to a final judgment in 1996 and 2005 and showed that most tort cases took over a year. Id. In general the turnaround time was almost the same between the studies with 22 months in 1996 and 23 months in 2005. Id. However, this time may also vary depending on the tort and whether it was a bench or jury trial. Id. at 9. For example, the average time for a medical malpractice case was 30 months and a car accident case was 20.1 months. Id. With respect to the length of bench versus jury trials, the average jury trial lasted four days, whereas the average bench trial only lasted two days. Id. at 8.
In order to compile the broad overall statistics, data from the 75 most populous counties was compiled to form national averages. Milwaukee County statistics were included in those statistics. Although not all of the Milwaukee data was referenced in the final published report, the types of tort trials, the percentage of plaintiff winners, and the average recovery were listed in the appendices for the study. Id. at 19-21.
First, the distribution of tort cases in Milwaukee is similar to the overall data. The breakdown of Milwaukee County trials included 67.8% automobile accidents, 15.6% premises liability, 1.1% products liability, 4.4% intentional torts, 6.7% malpractice, and 4.4% of other/unknown category. Id. at 19. The majority of tort cases in Milwaukee and in the nation are automobile accident cases. Id. at 2 and 19. In Milwaukee, the percentage of malpractice cases was lower than the national average. Id. But, the premises liability cases composed a higher percentage than the national average. Id.
Second, Milwaukee was within the top five counties surveyed in the study for highest percentage of plaintiff winners. Id. at 20. Milwaukee had 88 tort trials and plaintiffs won in 65.9% of those cases. Id. There are many potential reasons the plaintiff win percentage is higher in Milwaukee County than in other counties across the nation such as different laws, types of cases, attorneys, and/or other differences. However, it is impossible to provide an exact reason for the higher than average win percentage.
The so-called lawsuit lottery, where you can go to court and the jury will award you millions of dollars, was also confirmed as a myth in Milwaukee. According to the statistics, on average Milwaukee verdicts are $2,000 less than the overall country average for a total recovery of $22,000. Id. at 21. Although this may not seem like a high recovery, in most cases, that amount of money will make the injured party whole or in other words compensate the injured party for medical bills and pain and suffering resulting from the accident.
The report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provides a better picture of the tort world today. If you are injured, the best course of action is to call an attorney about the merit of your claim. Although a quick trial with a million dollar settlement is not likely in most cases, it does not mean your case is not worth pursuing nor does it mean you will not recover for your injuries. If you or someone you know has been injured, call Murphy & Prachthauser at 414-271-1011 for a free case evaluation.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Tort Bench and Jury Trials in State Courts, 2005, 1, NCJ228129 (November 2009), available here.