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Abstract

"U.S. Juries Grow Tougher on Plaintiffs in Lawsuits," the New York Times page-one headline reads. The story details how, in 1992, plaintiffs won 52 percent of the personal injury cases decided by jury verdicts, a decline from the 63 percent plaintiff success rate in 1989. The sound-byte explanations follow, including the notion that juries have learned that they, as part of the general population, ultimately pay the costs of high verdicts. Similar stories, reporting both increases and decreases in jury award levels, regularly make headlines. Jury Verdict Research, Inc. (JVR), a commercial service that sells case outcome information, often is the source of the stories. The stories highlight a major gap in our knowledge of the legal system. Reported aggregate data tend to be exaggerated or incorrect. For example, the figures reported in the Times article almost certainly inflate plaintiff success rates for 1989 and report a time trend that probably does not exist. In an era when court reform and tort reform are constantly on the public policy agenda, the need for accurate national data about the litigation system is more important than ever. This Article supplies the first comprehensive national assessment of litigation outcomes in state and federal courts. It uses data gathered by the National Center for State Courts and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Both data sources are national in scope and derive their information directly from court clerks' offices. The data portray a litigation system with case outcome patterns that differ from the patterns based on less comprehensive sources. The principal findings in this Article are: (1) plaintiff win rates in jury trials in state and federal court are strikingly similar; (2) award levels are much higher in federal court than in state court; (3) federal courts handle a relatively small fraction of the jury trials, but they distribute a surprisingly large percentage of the funds awarded in jury trials; (4) there probably is no significant time trend in plaintiff win rates in federal court jury trials; and (5) cases at almost every stage of disposition proceed more slowly through state courts than through federal courts.