civil litigation


When the lady you bump into at the supermarket threatens to sue you (yeah, happened the other day), it's hard to disagree with those who say we've become an overly litigious society. Some would put a damper on lawsuits, saying they harm business and encourage a culture of personal irresponsibility. Others say - and they're not all lawyers - that lawsuits are just an effective way to protect the “little guy” against big business and resolve disagreements. Many in Congress have an eye out to "reform" medical malpractice and asbestos litigation, as well as protect the gun industry from lawsuits. A proposal to limit class action suits by moving more to federal courts passed in Congress in February 2005. citizenJoe, as always, tries to put it all in perspective.

What's what

  • Civil Litigation - Civil litigation, simply put, are cases that go to court when one person (or entity) takes legal action in court – as opposed to cases where the government prosecutes someone for a crime.

  • Tort - A tort is the legal term for a “wrongful” act which causes physical or emotional damages. Torts can be accidental or intentional and range from defamation to assault. Torts are what lead to most civil lawsuits. (

  • Class Action - A class action lawsuit is filed by one or more individuals on behalf of a group of people “who are similarly situated.” These cases are usually the largest, most expensive cases because of the large number of plaintiffs.

  • Contract Case - A contract is a legal agreement entered into by two or more individuals. Contract cases happen when at least one of the contractees claims the other violated the agreement.

  • Punitive Damages – Punitive damages is money awarded to the plaintiff on top of the money she receives to compensate any physical or emotional harm. It can be awarded when a defendant willfully commits a malicious, violent, fraudulent, oppressive or reckless action. Punitive damages usually serve as an example to other individuals.

Types of civil litigation cases

In federal courts (out of a total of 268 thousand cases pending in 2004) CB

  • Tort cases: 75 thousand (28%);
  • Civil rights actions: 43 thousand (16%);
  • Prisoner petitions: 44 thousand (16%);
  • Labor law: 15 thousand (6%);
  • Social Security law: 15 thousand (6%);
  • Other: 23 thousand.

In state courts (from a 1992 sampling of 30 thousand cases - Cornell University):

  • Tort cases: 61%;
  • Contract cases: 37%;
  • Real property cases: 2%.

What kinds of tort cases are happening where

What kind (of state cases that reached a verdict in 1996) CBO:

  • Automobile-related torts: 49%;
  • Premises liability (slip and fall): 22%;
  • Medical malpractice: 12%.


all together now - a picture of state civil cases

note: this is just a sketch - it combines '92 data from Cornell and '96 data from the CBO

Where tort cases happen: CBO

  • 95% in state court;
  • 5% in federal court.

Costs, wins and windfalls

How much the nation spends on liability (tort) suits a year:

  • $233 billion (2002) TTP;
  • $180 billion (2002) WH;

(Note: these estimates don't include what many tort critics see as the "indirect" costs of lawsuits: for example, the costs of "defensive" medicine - unnecessary tests and procedures doctors do to avoid being sued - or the costs of businesses going bankrupt.)

Where all that money goes TTP:

  • 46% goes to the plaintiffs;
  • 22% for economic damages;
  • 24% for non economic losses;
  • 21% goes to administration costs (of the insurance companies);
  • 19% goes to attorneys' fees;
  • 14% toward defense costs.

How many cases get to court and win at court

  • 97% of federal cases closed before a verdict was reached (2000) CBO;
  • 48% of state cases that reached a verdict went in favor of the plaintiff (1996) CBO.

How much gets awarded (again, out of state cases that reached a verdict in 1996) CBO:

  • $31,000 average for all cases;
  • $18,000 in automobile-related cases;
  • $286,000 for medical malpractice;
  • $309,000 in asbestos cases.

Punitive damages:

  • 3% of cases that win get awarded punitive damages.
  • The average award for punitive damages was $38,000 in 1996 NCSC.

Where the facts are from:

For more facts on tort reform see, a primer from CBO, a report from the CBO on how tort reform in the states makes a difference and a U.S. DOJ report on federal torts in 96-97.

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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