Wednesday, November 24, 2004

~ Few and far between - the decline in cases filed ~

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its updated report on the rate of civil filings. Not surprisingly, the conclusions don't comport with the current Bush administration claim of too many frivolous lawsuits.

Some of the current statistics reflect dramatic changes from the prior survey.

BJS describes the content of the report:

Examines general civil cases (torts, contracts, and real property) disposed of by bench or jury trial in the Nation’s 75 most populous counties in 2001.
Information reported includes the type of case, types of plaintiffs and defendants, trial winners, amount of total damages awarded, amount of punitive damages awarded, and case processing time. Link to full report

The abstract highlights the findings:
* During 2001 a jury decided almost 75% of the 12,000 tort, contract, and real property trials in the Nation's 75 largest counties. Judges adjudicated the remaining 24%. Tort cases (93%) were more likely than contract cases (43%) to be disposed of by jury trial.

* The 11,908 civil trials disposed of in 2001 represents a 47% decline from the 22,451 civil trials in these counties in 1992.

* In jury trials, the median award decreased from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000 in 2001 in these counties.

* Two-thirds of disposed trials in 2001 involved tort claims, and about a third involved contractual issues.

* Overall, plaintiffs won in 55% of trials. Plaintiffs won more often in bench trials (65%) than in jury trials (53%), and in contract trials (65%) more than in tort (52%) or real property trials (38%).

* An estimated $4 billion in compensatory and punitive damages were awarded to plaintiff winners in civil trials. Juries awarded $3.9 billion to plaintiff winners while judges awarded $368 million. The median total award for plaintiff winners in tort trials was $27,000 and in contract trials $45,000.

* Punitive damages, estimated at $1.2 billion, were awarded to 6% of plaintiff winners in trials. The median punitive damage award was $50,000.

* Plaintiffs prevailed in about a fourth (27%) of medical malpractice trials. Half of the 311 plaintiffs who successfully litigated a medical malpractice claim won at least $422,000, and in nearly a third of these cases, the award was $1 million or more. Link to text version of full report

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Monday, November 22, 2004

Timeline, what timeline???

Okay, we all procrastinate, but really, looking for an answer to a problem on the eve of trial? Ya, that's this business. Investigators, at least good ones, are adept at thinking on our feet and responding in a crisis. But just in case you DO want to plan ahead, and get the most data, here's a timeline guide.

// Investigators can get court records from any geographic locale in which they are available. Here's the hitch. The courts determine WHEN those files are available. Closed cases are often in a warehouse, sometimes only accessed once a week. Due to budget cuts, some courts are open fewer hours and days. 2 week lead time usually covers this variability.

// Vital Records offices can easily take 2 months to respond to a request. All the money in the world can't get them to expedite this. But the same records can usually be obtained from the county in which they were filed, on the day of the request.

// FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) responses languish in the dark hole of whatever agency from which records are requested. A signed release or a subpoena can move this along. Otherwise, a 6 month thumb-twirling wait is usual. State Sunshine laws usually require the agency to reply more quickly.

// Police records (incident reports and calls for service) are available, in California, and many states, without a release, if requested for a legitimate business reason. The CPRA (California Public Records Act) specifies that these must be produced within 10 business days, or an explanatory denial must be issued. Sounds straightforward, right? Huh! I usually have to flood the police department, the district attorney and the city attorney with paper during those 10 days, ensuring that they know I know the law and will stop at no excuse to get a public record. Allow 2 weeks, or more.

// Investigate, find more. One piece of evidence tends to lead to others: the divorce reveals a criminal record in another county, a prior marriage, an out of state bankruptcy; an interview reveals bad acts that conflict with the subject's sworn statements (Noooo!). Investigate as soon as you take a case, or before (if you have some doubts about the client; if you're wondering if the target is as bad as your client portrays; when you need an asset status) and you may actually provide a better return for your client, or at least better protection.


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