By Cory Bilton
Each year, the DC Superior Court releases jury verdict data for cases involving automobile collisions, medical malpractice, and slip and falls. Since the Superior Court is Washington DC’s main trial court, this data provides some insight into the characteristics of cases that are going to trial and how juries are deciding them. Here is a summary of the jury verdict data for 2014:
There are a lot of ways to misinterpret these statistics. So before jumping to any conclusions from looking at these numbers, keep the following in mind:
Personal injury cases that make it all the way to trial are survivors. They have survived because the parties to the case have been unable to agree to settle without having a trial. As most personal injury attorneys and judges know, only a very small fraction of cases that go to trial. In my experience, I feel safe in saying that less than 10% of personal injury claims in the DC area result in a trial (and it’s probably far, far less than 10%). So the cases that do go to trial have some very unique circumstances which cause the parties to continue to disagree on what a fair outcome looks like. Usually the disagreement involves some combination of the following factors: (a) the parties strongly disagree on whether the defendant is liable at all, (b) both sides of the case have significant flaws or questionable evidence, or (c) the parties have differing, but principled, reasons to proceed to trial despite the risks of losing. Without any of these factors, the chance that the parties will settle without a trial is likely.
An observer might quickly notice that a plaintiff’s chance of success in an automobile case is much better than in a slip and fall case or a case based upon medical malpractice. This may lead you to believe that automobile cases are somehow more meritorious. This would be an oversimplification. What’s really going on is that slip and fall cases and medical malpractice cases more often hinge on whether the defendant is liable at all. In a large portion of automobile cases, the dispute is over the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, not whether the defendant is liable.
To quickly recap, every personal injury case involves two distinct hurdles that a plaintiff must prove: (1) the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was liable for her injuries and then (2) the plaintiff must prove the extent of her injuries and the financial damages she incurred.
In automobile cases, the liability of the defendant is often much easier to prove because every jurisdiction has pretty well-developed rules of the road. Your duties while driving, following, turning, and crossing are all proscribed by the rules. So for example, when one car rear-ends another car, it is easier to determine who is legally liable because the following driver is required to follow at a safe distance and to drive at a safe speed for the circumstances. But in slip and fall cases or medical malpractice cases, the rules to be followed are less clear and are less commonly understood. Therefore, in most slip and fall and medical malpractice cases, the underlying disagreement between the parties is often whether the defendant is liable.
One way to try to discern this from the data released by the DC Superior Court is to look at the defendant’s last offer prior to trial. For automobile cases, in 24 of the 57 cases (42%), the defendant was offering the plaintiff some amount of money prior to the trial. For medical malpractice cases, 0 of 8 defendants (0%) offered any money prior to the trial. And for slip and fall cases in 2014 we have something interesting; 5 of 7 defendants (71%) offered money prior to trial, but only 1 of 7 trials resulted in a win for the plaintiff. To me, this could mean one of two things for slip and fall cases, either (a) the defendant’s offer was really to just avoid the cost of going to trial, instead of an admission of fault, or (b) the defendant’s believed they would be found liable but the jurors did not come to that conclusion. Either way, the result is more nuanced that merely saying some categories of cases are meritorious and others are not.
So Few Cases
One of the things I remember from taking statistics in college is that small sample sizes lead to less meaningful statistics. This principle is certainly an issue here with slip and fall cases and medical malpractice cases. There were less than 10 trials for each of those categories last year. While it is normal to have so few, the small number makes it hard to say what an “average” case looks like. For example, the “average” slip and fall verdict for the plaintiff last year was $105,000. That may seem like a lot, but it is an average made up of just 1 case. By contrast, the corresponding average verdict for the plaintiff in 2013 was only $4,890 (and that was also an average of just 1 case). With such a small number of trials, the unique qualities of the individual case don’t give us much understanding about the group of cases as a category.
More Courts Should be Publicizing Jury Verdict Data
DC Superior Court is unique in releasing data about jury verdicts each year. Courts in Virginia and Maryland do not compile the same data, or if they do, they do not release the data to the public to my knowledge. While court records are open to the public, it would be an arduous task to collect all of this data going through the records case-by-case. Some businesses provide this data for a fee, but few members of the public would be willing to pay for it. The bottom line is that releasing jury verdict data allows us to have an open, more informed, conversation about trials and personal injury cases. I think it is unfortunate that so few people know anything about the process until they are a plaintiff or a defendant in a case.
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