Civil Case Filings 2007
The faltering economy has led to enormous growth in contract and real estate cases being filed. Foreclosures (21,042 filed in 2007) are up 4 times what they were in 1998 and money judgments (21,243 filed in 2007) are up 2.5 times during that same time period. In addition, the number of evictions and small claims cases are significantly higher. (Table 1)
New figures from ForeclosuresWI.com show 10,644 foreclosures have been filed in the first five months of 2008 – a 38 percent increase over the same period in 2007. This means since 2005, foreclosures have more than doubled to 2008, with southeastern Wisconsin experiencing a 115 percent increase over the past three years. Milwaukee County led the state in filings for the year where foreclosures are up more than 40 percent higher compared to the first five months of 2007. Dane County had the largest percentage increase in the region, up 68.6 percent over the first five months of 2007. With the grim economic news prevailing, it appears even more contract and real estate cases will be filed in 2008.
Most of these cases involve a business suing another individual or business. Despite the large increases, no one is calling for changing the laws in the area of foreclosures or money judgments, up a whopping 39 percent. Businesses rely on the courts to help them settle their disputes. Businesses see nothing wrong with increasing the workload of the courts when they try to resolve a dispute, yet continue to criticize individuals seeking justice through the civil justice system.
For the tenth straight year tort cases, encompassing product liability, automobile accidents and medical malpractice, decreased. In 1998 there were 9,418 tort cases filed compared to 7,377 in 2007. In fact tort cases make up a very small percentage of the Court’s caseload, only 2.4 percent of all civil case filings – 7,377 cases out of a total of 301,798 civil case filings. (Table 2)
Product liability and medical malpractice cases are rare. In 2007 there were only 104 product liability actions and 150 medical malpractice cases filed. More than 30 counties in the state did not see either a product liability or medical malpractice action filed in 2007. This is despite the fact that each year in America 33.1 million people are injured by consumer products and up to 98,000 people die in hospitals.
Auto accidents continue to result in the highest number of personal injury cases. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over 50,676 persons were injured and 737 were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2007 in Wisconsin, yet there were only 4,449 automobile cases filed. That means approximately one person out of every 11 injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash filed a lawsuit as a result. This number has been relatively constant for the past decade. Despite comprising 60 percent of all personal injury cases filed in 2007, no one has claimed there was an automobile insurance “crisis” in Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin consumers pay almost 25 percent less per year for automobile insurance than consumers nationwide, ranking seventh lowest in the nation for automobile.
The number of jury trials continues to decline statewide. In 2004 the number of jury trials was 553 for all civil cases. In 2007 the number had fallen to 456. So even with increasing numbers of civil cases, the number of jury trials declined. Personal injury cases make up the largest portion of jury trials in civil cases. In 2004 there were 403 personal injury jury trials, while in 2007 the number was only 339 (Table 3). The decline can be directly related to fewer jury trials for automobile accident cases. The number of jury trials for product liability, wrongful death, property damage and medical malpractice stayed the same or went up. This would seem to indicate in cases involving complex litigation parties rely on juries to resolve the matter.
The number of counties without jury trials also grew a bit, going from 14 in 2004 to 19 counties in 2007. It is interesting to note that two counties with populations of over 82,000 people, Ozaukee and Manitowoc Counties, had no personal injury jury trials in 2007. And other large counties, like Washington and Dodge Counties, had less than three jury trials involving personal injury cases (Table 4).
The facts show that it is businesses that are increasing the Court’s workload, while the number of tort cases is down. It is clear that any increase in litigation over the past 10 years has been primarily a result of businesses suing others (Table 5). There is absolutely no evidence of “excessive litigation” in the tort area.
The civil justice system works best when it works for all the citizens of Wisconsin. If businesses can use it to resolve their disputes, then injured citizens are entitled to the same rights. A strong civil justice system is good for Wisconsin citizens and good for the economy because it protects all citizens.