Trials & Litigation

National Study Finds Modest Damages are the Norm in State Civil Cases


A new study appears to debunk tales of runaway civil trial damages, at least in most kinds of cases.

The first national study of civil trials in state courts has found that civil plaintiffs who received monetary damages in 2005 received a median final award of only $28,000, according to a press release (PDF). The median award was $24,000 in tort cases and $35,000 in contract cases. Only about 4 percent of the winning plaintiffs received awards above $1 million.

The study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics also found that median damage awards are on the decline in the nation’s most populous counties, with a few exceptions—particularly in products liability and medical malpractice cases.

The study looked at tort, contract, and real property cases heard by both judges and juries in 2005. Sixty-one percent of the trials involved tort claims, and the most frequent tort involved auto accidents. The median final award in the auto cases was $15,000.

Plaintiffs who won their cases were awarded punitive damages in nearly 5 percent of the cases. The median punitive award was $64,000.

In tort cases, plaintiffs were most likely to win in suits involving an animal attack (75 percent), followed by motor vehicle accident (64 percent), asbestos (55 percent), and intentional tort (52 percent). Plaintiffs had the lowest percentage of wins in medical malpractice trials (23 percent), product liability trials that did not involve asbestos (20 percent), and false arrest or imprisonment trials (16 percent) according to the report (PDF).

Plaintiffs fared better before judges. They won 68 percent of bench trials and 54 percent of jury trials.

Previous studies examined civil trial awards in the nation’s 75 most populous counties, making it possible for the new study to consider how judgments and the number of trials are changing in those counties. Civil trials in those larger counties decreased by 52 percent from 1992 to 2005.

At the same time, the inflation-adjusted median damages award decreased by 40 percent, from $72,000 in the previous large-county study to $43,000 in 2005. The drop was largely due to a decrease in the median award for vehicle accidents, which dropped from $41,000 in 1992 to $17,000 in 2005.

Awards didn’t decrease across the board in the larger counties, however. Products liability plaintiffs in 2005 received a median award of $749,000, a figure at least five times higher than in 1992, and medical malpractice plaintiffs a received median award of $682,000 in 2005, nearly 2.5 times as much as the median in 1992.

The report is called “Civil Bench and Jury Trials in State Courts.”

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