The number of personal injury cases that were decided by a trial in federal courts has declined by almost 80% since 1985 as more suits have been settled, a Justice Department report said Wednesday.
In 2003, the most recent year of the study, there were 768 trials, down from 3,604 in 1985. The annual number of personal-injury cases in the federal court system varied over the 33 years of the study, averaging 44,770. There were 49,166 cases in 2003.
The report is the first to review trends in federal court tort litigation over three decades, said Thomas Cohen, a Justice Department statistician who wrote the study.
"This will help inform the debate on civil litigation in the United States," he said. "There doesn't tend to be a lot of data on this issue."
President Bush has made curbing personal-injury suits a priority of his administration's push to promote business growth and jobs. He has said "frivolous lawsuits" hurt the economy and make it harder for the U.S. to compete with other countries. Trial lawyers say the suits compensate victims of defective or unsafe products and that taking a case to court is an important constitutional right.
In February, Bush signed a law that requires trial lawyers to file the biggest class-action suits in federal courts rather than in state jurisdictions, which are seen as more sympathetic to plaintiffs. Bills are pending in Congress to cap medical malpractice awards and create a $140-billion fund for asbestos exposure victims to end litigation that has prompted more than 70 companies to file for bankruptcy protection.
The study, by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, focused on federal tort trials, which often involve personal-injury claims over defective products, car accidents and medical malpractice. About 10% of the trials involved damage to personal property rather than individuals.
In tort cases, plaintiffs claim that their injuries or losses resulted from either negligent or intentional behavior.
The report reviewed trends in the litigation since 1970 and looked at cases completed after jury or bench trials in 2002 and 2003. It didn't study settlements, which are often filed under seal or reached privately outside a court's jurisdiction.