Last year the Georgia Court of Appeals adjudicated or otherwise reviewed 1325 civil appeals. Of those appeals, the court affirmed approximately thirty-eight percent of the trial court’s decisions. The court reversed fourteen percent of the matters presented on appeal. The appellate court heard slightly fewer appeals in 2015 than in 2016, but the five-year trend published by the Georgia Court of Appeals shows a steady increase in the number of appeals submitted to the intermediate appellate court of this State. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that less than five percent of all civil cases are resolved at trial, and even fewer are decided by juries. So if fewer cases are being tried, what is the benefit of pursuing a matter to and through appeal?
The answer is that sometimes three, five or seven heads are better than one. Appellate judges are in an equal and sometimes a better position to decide questions of law as trial judges because they have the simple benefit of numbers. Georgia appellate courts review matters in panels of three or more judges with the task is to determine whether or not the trial court correctly applied the law. This structure provides a judicial checks and balances and promotes doctrinal coherence. As appellate courts set precedent, judicial review in an appellate forum is not solely focused on the matter at issue, but implicitly seeks to achieve, or at least not thwart, doctrinal clarity, consistency, and uniformity in the construction and the application of state law.
Additionally, while the concern over runaway juries provides a convincing argument for the early resolution of cases, many Georgia venues report that the fact finder is not always as unpredictable as believed. An examination of Georgia civil jury trials in the last three years, reveals that approximately 71 percent of the reported verdicts were for sums less than $100,000.00. (Westlaw’s Verdict and Settlement Summary; May 2017). When jurors do return verdicts, they do not habitually reward plaintiffs with more money than they could have settled for before trial.
In a study of all Florida closed medical malpractice claims between 1990 and 2004, researchers found that the vast majority of payments over $1 million were the products of settlements, not jury verdicts. Neil Vidmar, Juries and Medical Malpractice Claims: Empirical Facts versus Myth, 467 Clin. Orthop. Relat. Res. 368 (2009). Studies also show that jurors find it difficult to ignore evidence of a plaintiff’s liability once they have been exposed to it. Winter, Ryan J. and Edith Greene, Cognition and Juror Decision-Making, Handbook of Applied Cognition (2nd Ed. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2007). Armed with the right information and a clear understanding of their role as the fact-finder, juries can be perceived less as the fearsome multi-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, and more as a multi-armed Hindu goddess willing to lend a helpful hand.
Pursuing matters to trial and appeal unavoidably creates a statistical increase in awards at trial and increased defense costs. However, without taking such actions in the right cases, there is no way to formulate sufficient trial data to accurately assess case values and predict future defense costs.
About the Author Dawn Pettigrew is a senior associate at Mabry & McClelland, LLP. She has successfully represented clients before state, superior and federal courts in construction and civil litigation matters.
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