CHARLESTON – Though 2012 saw a slight uptick in lawsuits filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court, the figure still represented a decrease of nearly 40 percent from 2001.
In 2012, there were 2,584 civil cases filed in Kanawha Circuit Court. While that number is up from 2011, which saw 2,332 cases filed, it is down from 2001, which reportedly saw 4,125 civil cases filed.
The number of personal injury cases has been declining in the 2000s, according to a study done by the National Center for State Courts. That study found that tort cases accounted for just 4.4 percent of all civil cases filed in 2008, and declined by 25 percent between 1999 and 2008.
Tort filings in state courts decreased by six percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the study.
Harry Bell of the Bell Law Firm said there are many reasons why the number of lawsuits has decreased, but one of the biggest reasons could be because the quality of products is getting better.
“Cars are safer than they used to be; they’re built better,” Bell said. “Also, doctors and hospitals are doing better jobs than they were in the past, which makes those types of lawsuits less frequent, too.”
Bell said lawsuits in the past have made things safer today. The number of lemon law complaints has decreased because manufacturers have strove to make cars of a better quality to decrease the number of suits filed, he said.
According to the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, the number of federal tort cases resolved in U.S. District Courts fell by 79 percent between 1985 and 2003. In 1985, 3,600 tort trials were decided by a judge or jury in U.S. District Courts. By 2003, that number had dropped to less than 800.
The number of tort trials at the state level has also decreased, according to the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The statistics were compiled as part of the Bureau’s survey of state civil justice systems in the nation’s largest 75 counties. Among these counties, the number of tort trials decreased 31.8 percent between 1992 and 2001.
In Kanawha County, there has been a steady decline in the number of lawsuits filed since 2000.
Bell said people feel lawsuits are skyrocketing because there are more people talking about them than there were in the past.
“A decade ago, there wasn’t a newspaper or a website devoted to legal happenings in the state,” Bell said. “People hear about it more, which brings on the perception that there are more lawsuits being filed, even though there are actually a lot less being filed now than before.”
The number of mass litigation lawsuits, such as asbestos claims, could also be a reason for the decrease since a decade ago.
In 2010, Judge Arthur Recht implemented a case management order that required plaintiffs represented by a Pittsburgh firm to certify they were aware of their lawsuits, that their claims were “well-founded in fact” and that they wished to continue pursuing litigation.
Recht dismissed 1,400 asbestos suits that Peirce, Raimond & Coulter filed against CSX Transportation after the firm failed to obtain client signatures on statements that they understood their claims and intended to pursue them.
Recht’s order also required the production of all materials relating to the plaintiffs’ alleged exposure to asbestos—including medical records.
The law firm moved to voluntarily dismiss the claims rather than produce the materials.
“West Virginia isn’t a judicial hellhole,” Bell said. “People perceive it as such, but the truth is: West Virginia courts are incredibly fair and honest. If you’re a good, honest business, you’ll be okay.”
The American Tort Reform Association doesn't agree, recently naming the state the No. 2 worst jurisdiction in its annual Judicial Hellholes report.
There were 2,584 civil claims filed in 2012 in Kanawha County; 2,332 in 2011; 2,334 in 2010; 2,380 in 2009; 3,503 in 2008; 2,764 in 2007; 2,759 in 2006; 2,919 in 2005; 3,413 in 2004; 3,227 in 2003; 3,289 in 2002; 4,125 in 2001; and 3,268 in 2000.