Judges are more likely than juries to rule for the plaintiff in civil lawsuits, but juries generally award larger amounts for damages than do judges, according to an analysis of civil litigation made public yesterday.
The analysis of more than 15,000 tort, contract and real property civil cases that went to trial in state courts in the nation's 75 largest counties in 1996 was done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It said that 52 percent of the plaintiffs won their cases. About 66 percent of the cases involved trials by jury; juries found for the plaintiff in 49 percent of the cases they heard.
A defendant in a civil lawsuit can waive the right to a jury trial and have the case decided by the presiding judge. According to the analysis, 62 percent of plaintiffs that chose this route won their cases.
The study estimated that winning plaintiffs in the 75 counties were awarded about $3 billion in compensatory and punitive damages. Large punitive damage awards by juries recently have become a topic of controversy, but the study said punitive damages were awarded in only 5 percent of the cases. However, the punitive damages totaled more than $600 million, accounting for 21 percent of the $3 billion in total awards.
Juries were more generous to winning plaintiffs than judges, the study said. Half of jury awards to plaintiffs were for $35,000 or more, compared with $28,000 or more in half of the awards decided by a judge alone. In jury trials, 7 percent of the awards were for $1 million or more. Only 3 percent of cases decided by judges involved awards that large.
In tort cases, which involve allegations of injury, loss or damage from negligent or intentional acts by the defendant, plaintiffs were most often successful in cases involving automobile accidents, winning 58 percent of the time. They were least successful when suing for medical malpractice, winning 23 percent of these cases.
Juries awarded $1 million or more in 22 percent of the medical malpractice cases they heard, while judges made no awards of $1 million or more in the handful of medical malpractice cases they decided.