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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 00 > Article

The Truth About Torts
by Arthur Sands

One of the popular political buzzwords of the decade is "tort reform" - the promise to curtail our litigious society by limiting the scope and awards of civil lawsuits.

But are personal injury lawsuits and medical malpractice cases really bogging down the courts? UGA law Professor Thomas Eaton and political science Professor Susette M. Talarico set out to see how much of the political rhetoric about torts was really true.

"When you look at all of the civil filings, these high profile cases - the medical and product liability - it's a small chunk," Eaton said.

In two studies between 1990 and 1997, the researchers looked at thousands of cases in six Georgia counties - Bibb, Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Irwin and Oconee. They found that tort claims made up less than 10 percent of total civil filings. And only about 10 percent of those - just one in 100 civil cases filed - involved product liability or medical malpractice. Domestic relations and property disputes by far were the most common filings.

"We were asked by the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation to provide a more factual basis to lawmakers of tort litigation," Eaton said. "The battle has been fought by anecdotal evidence and spin in the media - like the McDonald's case where the woman sued because she was burned by hot coffee.

"There's this feeling that we have these runaway juries, and that's just rhetoric," he said. "Sure, some reforms might be needed, but tort law should be addressed on its merits."

Eaton said he hopes their work will help legislators reconsider tort reform and develop "an ongoing process of data collection and analysis."

Eaton and Talarico presented their findings to the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation's board of directors and to a continuing education class for lawyers. Their overall conclusion? There was no evidence of a tort crisis in Georgia, they said, citing these reasons:

  • No evidence exists showing an explosion in the number of torts filed in Georgia.
  • A very high percentage of tort filings involved simple disputes - not the headline-grabbing kinds of cases that resulted in huge verdicts.
  • A majority of claims were settled, and fewer than 5 percent went to trial.
  • No systematic bias exists in favor of the plaintiffs.

Eaton and Talarico's work on torts is likely not done. The pair said they hope to investigate the circumstances that lead to tort cases going to trial or being settled out of court. Their most recent study is to be published in the spring 2000 issue of Georgia Law Review.

For more information, e-mail teaton@arches.uga.edu.


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