Think tort cases are clogging the court system? Think again Thursday, August 22, 2019
If you’re under the impression that tort cases – such as personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice and products liability – are clogging up America’s courts, it’s time to take a look at the data. The short answer is: no, they’re not, and in California even less so.
The data comes from the National Center for State Courts, which in turn collects numbers from all the states. Some of those numbers are included in the State Court Caseload Digest, with data from 2017 (the most recent year available), and some are found on the organization’s website (click “Civil” at the top of the page to search the data).
Let’s start by looking at civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases), a larger category that includes tort cases. Those accounted for 19.2 percent of all incoming court cases nationwide in 2017. In California that proportion was even lower, with civil cases comprising just 15 percent of all incoming cases.
The NCSC has relevant data from 43 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Of those 45 entities, California ranks 44th – next to last – in the number of civil cases filed per capita, ahead of only Maine. In other words, California is just about the least likely place for a civil suit to be filed, based on its population (see the numbers here).
And tort cases make up only a fraction of civil cases – a very small fraction. According to the NCSC report, “Tort cases garner a great deal of public interest but generally account for only about 4 percent of Civil caseloads…Malpractice, both medical and other professional, accounts for 4 percent of torts, and product liability cases comprise only 2 percent.”
By far the largest proportion of civil cases filed are contract cases, mostly involving landlord/tenant disputes, debt collection and mortgage foreclosures. Looking at 22 states that provide detailed data (California is not one of those states), the NCSC found contract cases represented exactly half of all civil filings. Small claims and probate/estate filings also make up a larger proportion of civil caseloads than torts.
California does not track as much detail in its case filings as some other states – for instance, it does not offer statistics on medical malpractice or product liability filings, along with many other categories – but it does track the number of cases filed for personal injury, property damage and wrongful death (combined). According to the Judicial Council’s 2018 Court Statistics Report, in fiscal year 2017 (July 2016-June 2017), there were 61,172 of those. That was just over 1 percent of all cases filed in the state. (Criminal cases made up more than 77 percent of all filings.)
And what about cases that actually go to trial? Again, California does not provide a breakdown, but in the states that do report to the NCSC, only 1.5 percent of tort cases, and barely 0.2 percent of all civil cases, result in a jury trial. You’ll find some additional analysis of the NCSC data from the Center for Justice & Democracy.
— J.G. Preston