Injury and Accident Law

Tort Liability in the United States

The U.S. tort system is not centralized, which makes collecting comprehensive data about it difficult. Roughly 95 percent of lawsuits over torts are filed in state courts, rather than federal courts, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates. Moreover, in the vast majority of cases, plaintiffs and defendants reach out-of-court settlements, whose terms typically remain private. (For example, 97 percent of tort cases that “terminated” in federal district courts in fiscal year 2000 were disposed of before a verdict was reached.)

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that cover 45 of the nation’s 75 largest counties indicate that plaintiffs won 48 percent of the cases that reached a verdict in state courts in 1996 (the latest year for which that information is available).2 In those cases, the average time between filing and completion was 22 months. Automobile-related torts accounted for 49 percent of the cases, followed by premises liability (22 percent) and medical malpractice (12 percent). The median award to successful plaintiffs was $31,000 for all cases, but it varied widely for different categories of torts: from $18,000 in automobile-related cases to $286,000 for medical malpractice and $309,000 in asbestos cases.

Looking at trends over time, data from 16 states tracked consistently by the National Center for State Courts show that the number of tort cases filed each year rose by 70 percent between 1975 and 1990 (its peak) and then fell by 19 percent by 2000. Relative to population, the rate of filings was 8 percent lower in 2000 than in 1975— 212 cases per 100,000 residents compared with 230 cases.3

Figures that suggest an overall decline in tort cases, however, mask continuing growth in the number or impact of some important categories of torts. For example, the Physician Insurers Association of America reports that median court judgments for medical malpractice rose from $100,000 in 1990 to more than $300,000 in 2001—an increase of 138 percent after correcting for inflation. And researchers at RAND report that the number of claims filed for asbestos exposure nearly tripled in just two years, between 1999 and 2001.

Next > The Basic Economics of Tort Liability

2. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Tort Trials and Verdicts in Large Counties, 1996, NCJ 179769 (August 2000).

3. See Brian J. Ostrom, Neal B. Kauder, and Robert C. LaFountain, eds., Examining the Work of State Courts, 2001: A National Perspective from the Court Statistics Project (Williamsburg, Va.: National Center for State Courts, 2001), with accompanying spreadsheets available at 2001_Tort-Contract_Tables.xls.