Is there any report that sheds some light on how much damages are sought in civil cases in total in the US (or another major jurisdiction, e.g. the EU, UK, etc.) at any given point in time in recent years? If no such statistic is available, is there a proxy we can use to estimate a ballpark figure?

Considering this figure is probably far off the actual amount settled or awarded eventually and most settlements are confidential, is there a way to guesstimate the actual amount (perhaps using some sort of rule-of-thumb ratio)?

  • This looks like a statistically meaningless figure. If the village idiot claims 7 quadrillion dollars, the average claim skyrockets but the median does not.
    – MSalters
    Aug 20, 2019 at 21:49

1 Answer 1


There Are Isolated Data Points, But There Are No Good Comprehensive Compilations, Only Estimates

There is no official source that calculates it, although public records exist in each court system with its own data base (one in some states, several in other states, plus the federal system) from which someone diligent could compile this data. There are no U.S. jurisdictions of which I am aware that report that number in that form on a statistical basis.

Almost every court system does publish annual reports that disclose how many cases of a particular types are filed and there are detailed statistics maintained by a private research group of detailed court filing statistics in the 100 largest counties in the U.S.

There are also academic estimates (mostly based on surveys and statistical samples) in various papers, compiled often for tort reform debates, and many casualty insurance companies have in house estimates that they share through industry associations related to tort claims that are used to determine how much to charge for insurance policies. Often these studies do a statistical estimate of the average amount of various types of cases, use official data on the number of cases filed, and adjust for outlier very large dollar cases on a fairly ad hoc basis, or make reports based upon insurance claims made.

There are also many economic estimates of how much contractual debt is outstanding and is in default, maintained primarily by credit reporting agencies and government agencies and select economics departments at universities, but that doesn't use the source of demands in complaints that you suggest.

As a practical matter, it is impossible to get a comprehensive national number of the basis that you suggest because some states have rules of civil procedure that prohibit complaints in civil actions from containing a demand for a sum certain of money damages in certain kinds of cases or in all cases, and including all of that detail in the body of the allegations of the complaint is common in some jurisdictions and largely deferred to post-complaint disclosures and discovery in others.

Even when a fixed dollar money demand is allowed, it is often not helpful because often a litigant will make a claim in "an amount to be determined at trial", especially in complex cases or where non-economic damages like pain and suffering are involved.

There are better compilations of statistics (although still only by private parties) of jury verdict amounts and also separately, of judgments entered in cases, in specific subtypes of cases, than there are of claims made. Tax authorities publish similar statistics.

Definitional Issues

There are also very big dollar definitional issues.

For example, do you count non-judicial foreclosures of real estate? If you do, do you include the full amount owed on the debt or only the deficiency judgment amount claimed in excess of the value of the collateral?

In some jurisdictions, tax debts are enforced through a separate tax collection authority process outside the courts, and in others, there must be a filing similar to a civil complaint in an ordinary civil court first. Whether or not you count those profoundly influences the total.

Do you count claims filed in bankruptcy and probate and receivership cases which are resolved in the first instance by a fiduciary and only go to a court if the initial resolution is disputed, or do you only count disputed claims, or do you not count cases like that at all? Do you adjust the filed claim amount total if the debts are discharged in bankruptcy or a similar insolvency process or probate claim process?

How do you count multiple overlapping claims for the same injury on multiple legal theories, for example, breach of contract and fraud, possibly with different dollar amounts of damages awardable for the same injury depending upon the theory relied upon?

How do you count claims of parties in equitable cases like boundary disputes or divorces involve property divisions, child support and alimony, or restraining order cases where some or all relief is "in kind"?

Do you include court costs and attorneys' fees sought, which are indeterminate when a case is filed, or only the principle amount? Do you include pre-judgment or post-judgment interest on a claim or neither or both?

What Do You Want?

To get the best answer it helps to know why you want to know. For some purposes, incomplete data is sufficient or even preferable.

Are you really interested in all cases, or only certain kinds of cases? There are many good studies of specific types of cases in the academic literature (e.g. physical injury and physical property damage torts, intellectual property lawsuits, class action lawsuits), but I'm not aware of any good comprehensive statistics, in part, for the definitional reasons identified above.

  • 1
    "would it be fair to assume the ratio of claim size to lawyer fees is roughy 10:1?" No. It isn't nearly that consistent. And, most litigation consists of various forms of debt collection, evictions, repossessions, lien enforcement and foreclosures even though that doesn't make headlines, as well as divorces and custody, and lots of other subtypes of litigation (e.g. employment litigation) rarely involved insured losses. Plenty would be 2:1 or 3:1 for smaller claims. Tort litigation with insurance involved is a pretty small share of the total.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 28, 2019 at 11:27
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    For example, there are about 380,000 non-criminal cases a year filed in Colorado's state courts, of which about about 6,200 would be tort litigation with a decent chance of insurance being involved (Colorado with 5 million people out of 330 in the U.S. is consistently very average nationally, which implies about 409,200 nationally). In federal court there are maybe 65,000 such cases nationwide each year out of 277,000 non-criminal cases excluding bankruptcy proceedings (773K of those). So, there are roughly 475,000 such cases nationally per year. $$ claimed is much harder to estimate.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 28, 2019 at 11:51
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    In all, about 26.13 million non-criminal cases are filed in U.S. courts each year, with tort cases involving insurance accounting for about 1.8% of the total, so aggregate national litigation expenses are a pretty poor proxy for anything related to those kinds of cases. A very large share of the total for insured tort cases (probably at least a majority) are car accidents.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 28, 2019 at 11:57
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    @skyork It is much harder to distinguish complex commercial litigation of the type that I routinely do from run of the mill plain vanilla debt collection cases in official court statistics because both count as "contract disputes" in most cases. Lawyer fees v. claim size is very low in routine collection cases against non-consumers (1:10 to 1:50+ wouldn't be uncommon), very high in intermediate dollar complex business disputes (4:1, 1:1 or 1:3 wouldn't be uncommon), and intermediate in very big dollar commercial disputes between giant companies (with billions at stake legal fees are peanuts).
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 28, 2019 at 22:15
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    @skyork Also, while consumer bankruptcy cases are trivial and often uncontested, a significant share of all big dollar commercial litigation happens in the context of adversary actions within Chapter 11 bankruptcies.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 28, 2019 at 22:17

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