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Civil suits decline in state, as more are choosing mediators

| Monday, Feb. 6, 2012

Civil lawsuits are on the decline in Western Pennsylvania and across the state, as plaintiffs avoid county courthouses in favor of private mediators, experts say.

"Plaintiffs' lawyers know that going before a jury is a crapshoot," said retired Allegheny County Judge Eugene Scanlon, who runs a private mediation business. "It's better to settle out of court than risk the jury rendering an inadequate amount."

Court records show that 16,062 civil cases, not including divorces, were filed in Allegheny County in 2010 — the most recent data available — a 24 percent decrease from 2007. During the past decade, the number of civil jury trials dropped 66 percent, from 276 in 2000 to 94 in 2009.

In Westmoreland County, the 2,878 cases filed in 2010 represent a 29 percent drop from the 4,076 filed in 2006.

Attorneys and mediators say a large factor is the cost of litigation.

Expert witnesses for civil cases commonly charge $500 to $700 an hour, and premium work can cost thousands of dollars per hour, attorneys say. Most plaintiffs' attorneys don't receive money unless the person gets a payout.

"Lawyers are being more careful and selective in what they file," civil attorney John Gismondi said. "There's also been more emphasis on settling claims."

Mediation is a form of settlement discussion. A professional tries to get the sides to come to agreement. If one party doesn't agree, court remains an option.

John Noble, a Greensburg attorney, moved from litigation to full-time mediation five years ago and hears about 240 cases a year.

"Most people don't want to be in a trial if they don't have to be. It's a public confrontation," Noble said. "And (litigation) has gotten way too expensive. One doctor was getting $6,000 an hour to be an expert witness. Nobody can afford to try a case and lose."

Statewide in 2010, people filed 140,764 civil cases — the fewest since 2007 and a 21 percent decrease from the 178,084 filed in 2006. The number of jury trials is falling; in 2009, 1,012 civil juries heard cases in the state, a drop of nearly 53 percent from 2,133 in 2000.

Nine of Allegheny County's 41 Common Pleas judges are assigned to the civil division, along with two senior judges, compared with 14 judges and one senior judge five years ago.

Judge Terrence O'Brien, the division's administrative judge, said judges were transferred to handle increasing caseloads in the criminal and family divisions.

"I'm aware the filings are down. It probably reflects the belief that it's not worth it. I see a lot of zero verdicts on personal injury cases," O'Brien said. "There's definitely more and more private mediation."

Attorneys say legal changes can affect the handling of civil lawsuits. For example, in 2002, when medical malpractice lawsuits peaked in Pennsylvania, rules designed to weed out frivolous lawsuits took effect, leading to a decline in medical malpractice lawsuits.

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