Civil court filings have dropped considerably throughout the Los Angeles Superior Court system causing both consternation and concern among attorneys, judges and administrators. Although the reasons for the drop-off, especially notable for personal injury cases related to motor vehicle incidents, are not yet entirely clear, many believe the numbers reflect a trend to settle these cases out of court or simply not pursue them through legal channels at all. If so, court officials worry that they may be forced to do with even fewer resources than they now have, and litigators who specialize in personal injury could be facing a shrinking market for their services. “From the standpoint of the defense side it means defense firms are looking at layoffs,” said Robert Flagg, a member of the board of trustees and co-chair of litigation of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association. “And on the plaintiff side, how do you keep the doors open if the cases are the kind you can’t make a profit on.” Concerned that the drop-off could have serious implications for the administration of the courts, the Superior Court Bench Bar Committee has called a meeting this week to discuss the development. The volume of filings tends to be cyclical, but many believe the recent drop-off may reflect a more long-term trend. System-wide, the number of Los Angeles Superior Court civil court filings is down 9 percent in the fiscal 2003 2004 year versus the 2002 to 2003 year, and 17 percent compared with the 2001 to 2002 year, according to court statistics. Total civil filings in the North Valley district, which includes the Chatsworth, Santa Clarita and San Fernando courthouses, are down 10 percent for the most recent year compared to the prior year, and 11 percent in the Northwest district which includes the Van Nuys courthouse complex. Filings for personal injury resulting from car accidents dropped 22 percent in the North Valley district and 28 percent for the Van Nuys courts in the most recent year. For the three years between fiscal ’01 to ’02 and fiscal ’03 to ’04, these same cases declined by 17 percent in the North Valley district and by 29 percent in the Northwest district courthouses. The trend is similar for personal injury cases arising from other situations. The three North Valley courthouses saw a 10 percent drop in those cases between fiscal ’02-’03 and ’03-’04 and the Van Nuys courts saw a 25 percent decline. Malpractice filings declined 20 percent for the North Valley district and 5 percent in the Van Nuys district in the same period. Those who practice in the area say several factors may be to blame. Most important, a new statute that went into effect in January, 2003 extends the time allowed to file a personal injury complaint to two years from the date of the incident instead of the previous one-year time limit. With an additional year to negotiate a settlement, attorneys say, plaintiffs and defendants may be resolving their disputes before the case goes to court. “What people are thinking, and this is more touchy-feely than empirical, is because lawyers have more time to work with the adjusters a lot more cases are being settled before they’re filed,” said James R. Felton, a partner at Greenberg & Bass in Encino. Waiting on effects Attorneys say that they can’t be certain about the long-term effect of this extension for a while because these cases won’t be facing the new deadlines until January 2005 at the earliest. “Everyone’s in wait-and-see mode to see what happens when the two years kick in,” said James Curry, managing attorney at Bollington Stilz Bloeser & Curry which represents 21st Century Insurance Group. But other dynamics point to a continued move to settle personal injury cases without filing lawsuits. As in most other industries, the cost of doing business has risen considerably for attorneys. They are dealing with increases in everything from malpractice insurance to wages and health insurance for employees. Personal injury attorneys who work on a contingency basis for plaintiffs say that they often can’t expect to be compensated adequately given these increased costs. “If we analyze the case, and say it’s worth $30,000, and we get one-third, and it’s going to cost us $15,000 or $20,000 to get this case up to speed, we can’t afford to do that,” said Stephen M. Levine, of counsel at Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Pearson LLP in Tarzana. Just as important, attorneys say they can no longer expect to get large settlements for some cases, in particular the so-called “soft tissue” complaints where injuries are not always easy to prove. Insurance carriers several years ago began taking a hard line on these cases, and they are unwilling to settle them for more than the cost of, say, a few medical visits. And even if these cases go to trial, chances are juries won’t be any more sympathetic. Attorneys say that, perhaps because the one-day, one-trial system adopted by the courts has brought in a more diverse jury pool, current juries are no longer as willing to deliver generous verdicts as they once were. “So when you get a minor accident you get somebody that went to a chiropractor and ran up bills of $3,000 to $5,000, people are just not sympathetic,” said Flagg, who also represents a California insurance company. “They say, ‘gee, I’d like to get massages for three months for free too.'” Cases turned away There’s some anecdotal evidence that personal injury attorneys who work on contingency are turning down cases as a result. “At the plaintiff’s bar, I’ve talked to attorney after attorney who say those cases used to be my bread and butter, but I can’t make it with those cases anymore,” said Flagg. Finally, mediation efforts, which the courts have been pushing for several years now, seem to be paying off. Attorneys say the pool of mediators now includes former judges and others whose opinions are considered far more credible to both sides, so when they suggest settling, the parties tend to listen. Officials at the court say that they have not studied the statistics, and they note that the volume of filings tends to be cyclical. But others point out that the other dynamics at play suggest the downward trend will last. “There is a cycle, but this trough seems deeper and has lasted longer, and no one can yet see the end,” said Flagg.
Number of Civil Filings Plunges in Courts