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How long will my case take?

Nathan here. I'm back for a guest post with some new tricks I've learned at my new job from some of the researchers at UAMS. I've having a blast getting an inside look at cutting-edge biomedical research. This post looks at some data visualization about the time it takes to resolve civil tort cases in Arkansas.


One of the researchers has a master's degree in computer science, and I picked his brain a little bit about what software packages he likes to use. He prefers python to Perl (which I like) because python's research libraries are easier to use.

I took his recommendations to heart, and I've been tinkering around with the Anaconda python distribution with data I've gathered for another project I'm working on releasing very soon: Docket Dog. It's an Arkansas state court notification system. I used the data mining application Orange to perform some data visualization on the types of civil cases my dad and brother handle.

Arkansas Tort Case Length Analysis:

I took a look at over 98000 tort cases available electronically from the Administrative Office of the Courts for which I could calculate an end date. This is what the time frames look like:

Pendency of Arkansas tort cases in years. The scale is 20 years wide. Click to enlarge.

As you can see, civil court cases can take several years to resolve. We'll see what the averages look like here in a few minutes with another chart.

In the meantime, there are several interesting patterns that appear in this chart. For instance, on the first line for product liability cases, there are several vertical bands around 9, 12, and 14–16 years. I haven't looked into this, but I suspect each band probably represents a settlement of a specific type of cases, like Firestone exploding tire cases, Pinto exploding car cases, or something similar.

The declaratory judgment (dec action) line is notably shorter overall than the others. Again, I haven't researched this further, but I would expect this is due to the fact that dec actions don't involve juries and are usually about a specific question of law. For instance, lots of dec actions involve whether there is insurance coverage for a particular event or not (the hilarious Luther Sutter v. Dennis Milligan dec action notwithstanding). 

Now, on to the next chart. This is called a box chart:

Comparison of median Arkansas tort case values over the last 20 years. Click to enlarge.

This chart is broken up into quartiles. The light blue box represents 50% of all cases. So, 50% of motor vehicle collision (MVC) cases are decided within 2 years, with the median value being 1.6 years. (Median means the middle value; if there were 101 cases, for instance, the median value would be the 51st value). The average MVC case length is shorter at just over 1 year.

The dark blue lines represent maximum values, excluding outliers. The dots out to the right of the graph represent those outliers, which extend out to 20 years.

What's the bottom line? For 3/4 of tort cases, you can expect resolution to take at least 6 months to 3 years. Another quarter of cases take up to 4 years or so. And, there are always outliers that can take many, many years to reach ultimate resolution.

What questions do you have about this analysis?

Dateline investigation of "paper reviews" used to deny claims

Check out this NBC Dateline series (there are 4 parts), which describes how State Farm and other insurance companies use a "paper review" process to deny claims. Non-doctors write reports that are signed by doctors, oftentimes without review of records by the actual doctor. Doctors sign 30-50 reports in "autograph sessions" without reviewing records, and the reports were often changed after being signed by doctors. The reports were written in a way slanted in favor of the insurance companies to downplay injuries, limit claim payments, and cut care. 

Part 2 of 4:

Part 3 of 4:

Part 4 of 4:

Chipping away at the monolith

I've been fighting State Farm in a couple of federal court cases in east Arkansas. I had to ask the Court to order State Farm to produce its claim handling materials. These are the documents that show whether you get a fair shake from your insurance company. Usually, even if the documents say what they're supposed to (platitudes, we call them), the insurance company didn't follow the guidelines. The judge agreed with my client, and order State Farm to produce those guidelines. There's a good synopsis at the Property Insurance Coverage blog, so check it out.

State Farm case filings skyrocket in Arkansas and the U.S.

I've got a couple of underinsured motorist ("UIM") cases pending against State Farm. One of the allegations in the cases is that State Farm denied my clients' claims because they were following a national policy to force claims into court.

Several books have been published about how insurance companies aggressively revamped their claims departments for maximum profit in the mid 1990's, which was a shift away from fairly paying claims. One such book is called Delay, Deny, Defend. The documents showing how this shift was designed call it a "zero sum game," meaning that where the insurance companies win, the insured people must lose. Of course, artificially lowering claim payouts regardless of merit is bad faith on an institutional level.

In connection with my cases, I've done some research on lawsuits involving State Farm in state courts in Arkansas and in federal courts around the country. Here's the chart of the number of State Farm cases in Arkansas over the past 20 years:  

State Farm First Party Cases in Arkansas.jpg

 The trend holds true generally for national cases involving State Farm:

state farm federal case chart.png

This case filing information is proof that State Farm has ramped up its litigation department in keeping with the delay, deny, defend strategy used by State Farm and other insurance companies.

These are just cases where State Farm was a named party. State Farm is involved in vastly more cases where State Farm stays in the shadows and defends cases against people who caused accidents. It's difficult to determine which insurance companies are involved in these types of cases, since the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts and its federal counterpart, Pacer, don't keep track of the identity of insurance companies in these "third party" cases. This prevents the public from identifying trends about which insurance companies are bogging down court systems across the country.

It sure seems like we need to change our laws to shine more light on these insurance company tactics. At the Chaney Law Firm, we fight to expose bad faith insurance tactics, one case at a time.

Insurers refusing to defend insureds may lose defenses to coverage


An interesting ruling came down in New York recently about the duty to defend. The duty to defend requires an insurance company to pay for a legal defense whenever one of its insureds gets sued. The duty to defend is very broad, and can only be defeated where the allegations in the lawsuit against the insured make it clear there is no insurance coverage. 

In contrast, the duty to indemnify is much narrower. It requires a judgment against the insured (or a settlement) before an insurance company must pay for damages. In some cases, coverage questions or disputes over the amount of damages warrant taking a case to a jury. If the jury decides there is no coverage or no damages, the duty to indemnify is never triggered. However, the insurance company is still required to foot the bill for its insured's legal defense.

In the New York case, the insured had to fight the insurance company over whether his company would be provided a lawyer.  The insurance company lost that battle and tried to claim it had no duty to indemnify the insured based on a coverage issue. New York's highest court of appeals rejected that argument. That Court held that the insurance company's wrongful decision to refuse a lawyer to its insured meant that the insurance company was liable up to its policy limits.

In many cases, insurance companies try to prolong the litigation process in hopes that its opponents will give up or run out of money. With such deep pockets, insurance companies can afford to take several bites at the apple. Kudos to the New York Court of Appeals for recognizing this fact and ruling that an insurance company must play fair if it wants to preserve all of its legal defenses.

We could use a rule like this in Arkansas. I worked a case once where a farmer spent six figures in legal fees defending three lawsuits against his farm. His insurance company wrongfully denied coverage, and it took more than a year in litigation to force the insurance company to pay for his defense. Luckily for him, he had the resources to pay his attorneys; many people would have been bled dry and simply given up. A version of this New York rule would be a good candidate for insurance reform in upcoming legislative cycles.