Nation's Appellate Courts To Plaintiffs: You Lose

A new Cornell study shows that, on appeal, Plaintiffs are far more likely to lose than Defendants, including in areas like product liability, malpractice, real estate, and more. Overall, “[D]efendants were far more likely than plaintiffs (41.5% versus 21.5%) to successfully reverse an adverse trial outcome. Indeed, from the perspective of a plaintiff victorious at trial, the appeals process offered a chance to retain victory not far from what a coin-flip would predict.” (Emphasis added.)

Here’s the full breakdown:

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Now, think back to all those “outrageous” jury verdicts you’ve heard of. Chances are, the appellate court tossed them on appeal. This is probably good news if you support tort reform. (Maybe now you can rest easy for a job well done.) But it isn’t very good news for wronged consumers seeking redress in the courts. Plaintiffs beware. SAM GLOVER

[via Tortdeform]

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  1. Bulldog9908 says:

    I have a theory.

    Juries tend to ignore important points of law and fact when emotions are high. A defendant may not be at fault for an injury or death, but put a crying mother on the stand and the jury may crumble and find for the plaintiff when they shouldn’t have according to the facts of the case.

    An appellate court will fix this. If my theory is correct, this statistic is a good thing.

    For instance (and I can’t find this case anymore, but these are the facts):
    A mother (who happens to be an illegal alien) is driving her van with her unrestrained son in the back seat through a red light illegally and is struck by a car going through a green light. The unrestrained son is ejected from the van because the latch on the sliding door fails in the crash. The son is killed. The jury found the van’s manufacturer liable in a products liability suit because the latch on the door failed despite all the contributory actions of the mother.

    Remember in a civil suit, only a majority of jurors have to agree for a verdict to be reached, so it’s much easier to get a bogus verdict.

  2. shoegazer says:

    I anal, but… it seems the greatest appeals gaps are in lease disputes, professional malpractice and assault/slander/libel, with almost all cases overturned in favor of the defendant.

    Buyer plaintiff, medical malpractice and product liability are the ones I am most interested in as a consumer… these are only slightly advantageous to the defendant. So I don’t think this is anything to worry about, but then again I’ve never had to sue anyone, let alone appeal a decision.

  3. fonzette says:

    @Bulldog9908: That’s a fine theory and there’s probably some validity to it, but if you look at the data there’s not an enormous difference between the stats for jury trials and the stats for judge trials.

  4. Trackback says:

    [Consumerist crosspost] A new Cornell study shows that, on appeal, Plaintiffs are far more likely to lose than Defendants, including in areas like product liability, malpractice, real estate, and more.

  5. RogueSophist says:

    “Now, think back to all those ‘outrageous’ jury verdicts you’ve heard of. Chances are, the appellate court tossed them on appeal.”

    Wait. Really? I’m not sure we’re reading the same chart. The numbers don’t say this, the chart doesn’t explore the bases for the reversals.

  6. Shadowman615 says:

    Meaningless, however. In civil cases like those, the costs of going to trial is prohibitive enough that defendants are willing to settle. Even though they have a much better chance of winning.

  7. tastic says:

    I would be interested to know the Plaintiff and Defendant reversal / affirmance ratios for pretrial dispositive motions vs. civil trials (since this says “civil trials, I assume that the former are not included).

    My experience is that Plaintiffs have a higher reversal rate from adverse pretrial motions than Defendants. If so, this would offset what these data suggest (i.e., Plaintiffs lose on appeal), but I have not RTFA.

  8. @Bulldog9908: “Juries tend to ignore important points of law and fact when emotions are high.”

    Contrary to what most people (even trial lawyers) think, juries generally take their job seriously and do it well. Sheri Diamond at Northwestern and Neil Vidmar at Duke have done extensive work on these problems via the “Arizona Jury Project,” wherein a judge in Arizona ordered a number of jury trial and jury room deliberations videotaped (a first ever) under the condition the tapes never re-enter the state of Arizona and all research on them be conducted out of state, in order to actually evaluate HOW JURIES WORK when Arizona was having a knock-down, drag-out over jury reform with the kinds of questions that could only be answered with, you know, jury room data.

    If you follow the “publications” link of either professor there are several papers there of interest that discuss or touch on emotionalism in the jury room. As a rule jurors are aware of when they’re reacting emotionally and work hard to push that to the side to look at facts. Jurors also don’t become stupid when they step into a jury box — they know what a lawyer manipulating their emotions looks like.

  9. yahonza says:

    two points:

    1)I doubt the difference can be explained by failures of the jury. In fact, appellate courts rarely review the jury’s actual decision. The jury’s factual findings are entitled to great deferance.

    Rather, appelate courts review judge’s decisions on legal (as opposed to factual) matters. Jury instructions, admission of evidence, etc.

    2) While this survey may show that appelate courts are too pro-defendant, perhaps it reveals that trial level judges are too pro-plaintiff.

  10. yahonza says:

    Also, maybe there is no bias against plaintiffs at all.

    Defendants may simply choose to appeal more often (probably because they can afford to). Plaintiffs may just give up if they lose at trial, or maybe can not afford an appeal.

  11. huadpe says:

    @fonzette: That’s not entirely true. Defendants can pick which type of trial they’d like, and they do so in a nonrandom fashion. While rates of ruling for the defendant or plaintiff may be similar, the reasons for choosing them are real. Also, in the stats above, juries had a 6% higher reversal rate overall (33.7 vs 27.5).

    The other reason defendants may do better is that they can get a partial victory. A reduction in damages can still mean significant damages, even if it’s 10 million and not 200 million. A plaintiff usually would have to win outright, such as with a new trial.

  12. Catalyst says:

    @Bulldog9908: Without knowing the type of products liability standards for the jurisdiction that case was in, the example is meaningless.

    Was it strict liability, negligence, implied warranty, etc.? Furthermore, there are differing standards among these, some jurisdictions will not let a plaintiff win unless the defendant was 51% at fault, some at 50%, and others will then only let you recover based on the percentage of fault of the defendant (you suffer $100k in damage, defendant 10% at fault, you receive $10k).

    Too many people are brainwashed by cases which are not explained properly (e.g. McDonald’s coffee) or others sensationalized by the media to actually discuss what needs to happen with tort reform.

  13. snowferret says:

    Every court case is a story in and of itself. You can’t read anything in these statistics. Who are we to say that those cases that failed had merit in the first place? Though i suppose those numbers are less than optimistic.