My clients often ask me how frequently civil cases settle before going to trial. Studies indicate that the rate of civil jury trials have steadily declined since the mid-twentieth century. For instance, 5.5 percent of civil cases filed in federal court resolved by way of jury trial in 1962. In recent years, without even factoring the prohibitive effects of the coronavirus, the rate of civil jury trials has diminished to well below one percent.
I came across an interesting resource from Pennsylvania’s judicial administration, which compiled all the civil cases that were resolved in the Commonwealth’s Courts of Common Pleas during the year 2020. Out of 105,583 resolved cases in Pennsylvania, 28.1% of civil cases ended by pre-trial settlement. 20% of civil cases were dismissed or discontinued. 763 civil cases ended by non-jury trial, i.e., where solely the judge decides liability and awards, and only 198 civil cases were tried by a jury.
It wouldn’t surprise me if a large portion of those 198 jury trials took place in January of 2020, shortly before the onset of coronavirus lockdowns. In the years 2017-2019, the average annual number of Pennsylvania jury trials was closer to 700. However, even under normal circumstances, it’s much more likely that the typical civil case will resolve by settlement than jury trial.
Facilitating an effective jury trial requires significant coordination and resources, not just from the plaintiffs and defendants, but the courts themselves. As a result, the courts incentivize parties to resolve lawsuits by requiring the adversaries to disclose information about their case well before the trial date. In the weeks leading up to trial, the parties typically understand the range of outcomes if the case were tried to jury verdict.