Review of court records shows no dramatic increase in civil lawsuits

from the Tallahassee Democrat



A Tallahassee Democrat review of records compiled by the Florida State Court System shows civil lawsuits have not increased dramatically since 1986.

How does this play into the Legislature's rationale for limiting lawsuits?

Proponents of changes in civil court procedures are pushing hard this legislative session to limit the liability of businesses, particularly in the area of product liability and personal injury lawsuits. Gov. Jeb Bush, legislative leaders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida say the changes are needed to correct what they see as a legal climate that is unfriendly to business.

At a rally last week, Bush urged the Legislature to adopt an 18-point program that would limit business liability in civil suits and get rid of laws that allow awards to be collected from the defendant with the most money, regardless of responsibility. But opponents of the changes, primarily trial lawyers, say the changes are not needed.

They say there has been no sudden increase in the number of civil suits aimed at businesses and that any changes would restrict access to the court system and allow businesses to abdicate responsibility for actions that could harm customers.

For more on this story, read the Tallahassee Democrat.

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Posted on Sat, Mar. 26, 2005

Lawsuits in step with growth

Number of cases not outpacing rise in population

By Rocky Scott

DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER

A review of data compiled by the Office of the State Court Administrator reflecting all civil suits filed in Florida between 1986 and 2003 shows the total number of cases - with one exception - tracks population growth.

"I agree that there has been a slow, steady growth that seems to correlate with population increases," Gregory Youchock, chief of court services for the OSCA said.

Youchock said OSCA receives monthly reports tracking civil and criminal actions from court clerks in Florida's 67 counties.

OSCA records reviewed by the Tallahassee Democrat show a total of 154,727 civil suits were filed in 1986, compared with 182,305 in 2003. Florida's population rose from 11.6 million in 1986 to 16.7 million in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Case filings have increased about 20 percent while the population has increased nearly 50 percent.

OSCA divides civil actions into nine categories: professional malpractice, product liability, auto negligence, other negligence, condominiums, contract and indebtedness, real property, eminent domain and "other."

Proponents pushing hard this legislative session to limit the liability of businesses, particularly in the area of product liability and personal-injury lawsuits, say a large number of frivolous lawsuits and increases in lawsuits against businesses are damaging Florida's business climate.

Gov. Jeb Bush, legislative leaders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida say the changes are needed to correct what they see as a legal climate that is unfriendly to business.

But opponents of the changes, primarily trial lawyers, say the changes are not needed.

They say there has been no sudden increase in the number of civil suits aimed at businesses and that any changes would restrict access to the court system and allow businesses to abdicate responsibility for actions that could harm customers.

Youchock said of the nine categories, only one - product liability - showed increases that did not correspond with population growth.

Product-liability lawsuits generally involve suits against the manufacturers or distributors of products that have been found to be harmful. Asbestos and tobacco lawsuits are two examples of product-liability litigation.

There were 755 product-liability cases filed in 1986, OSCA records show. That number climbed to 1,221 in 1990 and, by 2000, hit 6,890. By 2003, the last full year for OSCA data, the number of product-liability cases filed dropped to 4,900.

In the first half of 2004, 1,392 product liability cases had been filed in Florida's civil-court system.

Statistics show a large number of the product-liability cases were filed in Broward and Dade counties. Dade County has been dubbed "a judicial hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Association.

Jim Messer, a personal-injury attorney with the Tallahassee law firm of Fonvielle, Lewis, Foote & Messer, said there's no question in his mind a law intended to limit product-liability lawsuits wound up triggering an avalanche of litigation.

"This is a function of the 1999 tort reform 'three-year savings' law," Messer said.

The statute limited the amount of time product-liability suits could cover, but also granted a three-year period in which lawsuits that did not fall into that time frame could be filed.

That triggered a large rise in product-liability lawsuits in 2000, Messer said.

But Alvin F. Lindsay, a partner in the Miami law firm of Hogan & Hartson, says product-liability cases often come "in waves" and that the jump in the two counties probably is more the result of a new round of product-liability cases than any legislative action.

"What that could have been is a combination of one or more mass torts," said Lindsay, who represents defendants in product-liability cases.

He pointed to the steadily increasing number of cases involving the pain reliever Vioxx, which was pulled from the market after studies showed it could cause heart problems.

The numbers of product-liability lawsuits in Dade County and statewide declined in 2002 and 2003, according to OSCA figures.

But in another area targeted by Bush and advocates of changes in civil-suit procedures, the number of lawsuits has remained virtually unchanged since 1986.

OSCA records show filings in the "other negligence" category, targeted by business groups that want to curtail liability, totaled 12,062 in 1986 and 13,307 in 2003. That's an increase of about 8 percent. These lawsuits include ones involving accidents that occur on a business's property.

Florida's population increased by about 50 percent during the same period of time.

In the category of auto negligence, which involves traffic accidents, there were 19,368 lawsuits filed in 1986 and 19,707 suits filed in 2003.

In both categories, the OSCA statistics show roughly half of those lawsuits were dismissed either before a hearing was held or after the first hearing.

In contrast, the number of lawsuits involving real property has nearly doubled, from 42,630 in 1986 to 74,532 in 2003.

Determining the cost of civil litigation to the state court system would be difficult, Youchock said, because judicial districts submit their budget requests as lump sums that include civil and criminal court costs.

He also said damage awards are not tracked by OSCA, adding any tally of lawsuit awards would have to be done by going through court records at individual county courthouses.

Dorothy Burke, budget-services manager for OSCA, said the annual budget for the agency this fiscal year is about $391 million, or about 0.7 percent of the state budget. That figure includes all circuit-court activities, she said.

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The Legislature is on Easter break. The House will be in full session Tuesday; the Senate, Wednesday. - COURTS

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Contact Rocky Scott at (850) 599-2176 or rscott@tallahassee.com.

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See www.tallahassee.com