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Seeking Jackpot

— Kathleen Cason


Each side trots out the horror stories: Doctors and insurers blame frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries for sky-high malpractice costs; trial lawyers and consumer advocates point fingers at incompetent doctors or negligent corporations for the suffering of innocent victims. Some argue that Wall Street drives costs, not the courtroom.

But ultimately, legislators make the rules. And at both the state and federal levels, lawmakers are considering changes to tort law, or laws that apply to civil suits that seek damages for personal injury.

“The whole tort business is heating up again in the Congress and in the Georgia legislature,” said Susette Talarico, the Albert Berry Saye Professor of American Government and Constitutional Law at the University of Georgia. “The problem with tort reform is that few critics — oreven defenders — of current law have any research to support their positions.”

So Talarico and Thomas Eaton, J. Alton Hosch Professor of Law, amassed the most comprehensive set of state civil court cases in the nation — more than 25,000 tort cases from nine courts in six Georgia counties (Research Reporter Summer 2000).

Contrary to popular notion, juries rarely award vast sums in personal-injury suits, according to a study of 25,000 tort cases. UGA researchers found that 3,700 of those cases sought punitive damages, 15 were granted awards and only five of those 15 received more than $1 million.

They analyzed these cases to answer key questions about tort litigation in Georgia and to give policymakers “more of a factual basis on which to make judgments about our civil justice system,” Eaton said.

“The media only give attention to the spectacular cases, the atypical cases. And these become the basis for most people’s generalizations about the tort system,” Talarico said.

Contrary to popularly held views, the researchers found that tort cases represent less than 10 percent of all civil litigation, most involve simple disputes, few go to trial and the rate of filings is not increasing. When a case goes to trial, plaintiffs and defendants have an equal chance of success. When plaintiffs win, awards are modest — a median of $6,000 — and punitive damages rare.

In a new study, Eaton and Talarico teamed up with UGA economist David Mustard to explore what happens when plaintiffs ask for punitive damages.

“Critics of punitive damages say the problem is not simply the amount and number of awards, it’s the effect that it has on settlements — the ‘below the water’ portion of the iceberg,” Eaton said. “We wanted to see if there is some measurable impact of the request for punitive damages on how a case is processed.”

Of the 25,000 tort cases they studied, only 3,700 cases sought punitive damages and merely 15 cases were granted awards.

The researchers found that including a request for damages didn’t affect how a case was processed, Eaton said. Not surprisingly, cases asking for punitive damages were more likely to receive them. An unexpected finding was that these cases requesting awards were more likely to be tried by judge than jury, he said.

“In spite of the conventional wisdom to the contrary, plaintiffs prevail more often in cases tried before a judge instead of a jury,” Eaton said.

The researchers also compared how claims were processed for cases where punitive damages were capped by law versus those that weren’t capped. Georgia law caps punitive damages at $250,000 for most cases.

When uncapped punitive damages were involved, the case was more likely to end up in court.

“This suggests that instead of being a kind of extortion to settle, seeking punitive damages was an impediment to settle,” Eaton said. “The uncertainty about whether punitive damages would be awarded and if so, for how much, appears to get in the way of the two sides putting a value on their case in the same range that would lead to a settlement. Again that is contrary to at least one strain of the criticism.”

Eaton said their research shows little sign that punitive damages in Georgia create problems — whether in terms of the number of cases in which punitive damages are awarded, the amount awarded for punitive damages or the impact that seeking punitive damages has on processing cases.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to any or all tort reform,” Talarico said. “Just base it on facts instead of assumptions.”

For more information, contact Susette Talarico at or Thomas Eaton at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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