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Academics Can't Explain 'Astonishing' Decline in Plaintiffs' Win Rate

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 12, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Plaintiffs mysteriously lost twice as many federal cases in 2009 than they had 24 years earlier, according to a new study.

Two University of Connecticut law professors said the plaintiffs' win rate declined about 50 percent from 1985 to 2009. It was a trend the professors cannot explain.

"I'm an academic, I don't like to speculate," said Peter Siegelman, who co-authored the study with Alexandra Lahav.


The academics said the drop was "astonishing" in their paper, "The Curious Incident of the Falling Win Rate." Between 1985 and 1995, the win rate dropped the most -- from 70 to 30 percent -- before leveling out at 35 percent.

"A significant puzzle remains unsolved," the professors wrote.

Lahav and Siegelman rejected some reasons for the decline: shift in case types; volume of bad cases; defensive strategies. Instead, Reuters reported, judicial attitudes may have changed.

"It's possible," Alison Frankel wrote, "that in the critical time frame of 1985 to 1995 judges were more skeptical of plaintiffs' claims and more likely to enter judgments for defendants."

Court Changes

The researchers said they didn't have enough data to conclude that judicial attitudes towards plaintiffs changed over the time period, the ABA Journal reported.

"What our results show is that there's a need to study the court system to understand what happens in the aggregate," they said. "There are systemic things going on."

Court watchers -- and plaintiffs' attorneys -- have seen it in action. More prisoner habeas cases, for example, have a low win rate.

While politics do not account for everything, Republican appointees dominated the federal bench until President Obama tilted the balance toward Democrats in 2013.

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