Our Civil Justice System

Supporters of so-called "legal reform" bills in Congress claim that too many lawsuits have led to excessive costs and delays. They also charge that juries can no longer be trusted to render fair verdicts. The facts belie these assertions. These legal revisions would gut our system's ability to force wrongdoers to change their harmful conduct.

  • Tort claims -- those filed by injured Americans -- do not clog our courts. In fact, such claims accounted for only about 5 percent of all civil claims filed in state courts in 1992, according to the most recent data compiled by the nonpartisan National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Of the 19.7 million civil cases filed in 1992, about one million were tort cases, the center reports.

  • Tort filings in state courts have essentially remained constant over the past decade and actually declined by 6 percent between 1991 and 1993, according to the most recent NCSC study. This is particularly significant because over 95 percent of all tort cases are filed in state courts.

  • The costs associated with our liability system are far less than critics contend. The nonpartisan Rand Institute for Civil Justice has estimated that $14 to $16 billion was paid in compensation to injury victims through the tort system in 1985. When indirect costs were added (court costs, legal fees, insurance claim processing costs, etc.) Rand arrived at a total of $29 to $36 billion (or about $29,000 to $36,000 per case).

  • Rand's estimate probably has increased in the intervening years, but it doesn't even remotely approach the $300 billion figure so often cited by critics of the civil justice system. Scholars have traced the basis for the $300 billion figure to a guess by a corporate executive that was then multiplied by three and one-half times.

  • Tort system costs pale in comparison to costs associated with injury. A 1991 Rand study estimated that non-fatal injuries cost the U.S. economy nearly $176 billion in 1989 alone. The National Safety Council estimates that accident costs totaled $399 billion in 1992.

  • About 6,000 deaths and millions of injuries are prevented each year because of the deterrent effect of products liability, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

  • When juries speak, corporate America listens. That's why defectively designed cribs no longer strangle infants. Trucks have back-up alarms. Once-harmful medical devices have been redesigned. Auto fuel systems have been strengthened. Cancer-causing asbestos no longer poisons homes, schools and workplaces. And farm machinery has safety guards.

Given the facts, why do opponents of civil justice blame tort cases for clogging our courts and driving up costs? The proposed legal revisions would limit the rights of individuals to hold wrongdoers accountable, but give corporate America every opportunity to vindicate its legal rights.

Used with permission from The Association of Trial Lawyers of America. All rights reserved.