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Jurors in civil suits prove stingy -- plaintiffs often left empty-handed

Not everyone who sues for damages in court these days walks away with the bank, according to findings of a new, extensive Rand Corporation study.

Rand's Institute for Civil Justice tabulated verdicts and awards by civil juries in Cook County, Ill., over a 19-year period ending in 1979.

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The resulting report, considered the first of its kind and one with strong national implications, notes that half the plaintiffs who took their cases before a jury did not win at all. And of those who did, half took home less than

''Most plaintiffs don't get rich in trial lawsuits,'' says Dr. Mark Peterson, a lawyer who served as the principal investigator of the Rand study.

However, those people who filed and won product liability and professional malpractice suits were awarded more money than those who filed other types of suits. Though big-money cases were only a small portion of total cases, they pushed up the award average to $82,000 by 1978. The average held steady at about the two decades.

About two-thirds of the cases involved auto mishaps. The proportion of those cases and the damages awarded - relatively modest - have remained stable, according to the study. But the size of some other awards, particularly cases of worker injury or street and sidewalk hazard, has been growing. Indeed, more than a third of the dollars awarded went to 2 percent of the plaintiffs who won their cases.

The increasingly lucrative awards sparked a major ad campaign by several insurance companies in the late 1970s. The ads stressed the link between jury trial awards and premium rate increases for the average consumer. Their message said that each dollar verdict in effect costs the consumers money. Trial lawyers , in particular, were not pleased with that theme, and several insurance companies were sued on grounds that the such ads, critical of large-dollar verdicts, could affect the fairness of jury trials. Though insurers have won most decisions on First Amendment grounds, many of the companies have dropped the ad campaign.

Aetna Life and Casualty spokesman Douglas Alspaugh says that in his company's case the court suit challenge had nothing to do with the decision to drop the public interest ads. It was a marketing decision, he says.

''We were in a sense trying to light a public debate on the subject,'' he explains. ''And we still feel that the tort liability system is more or less being changed into a reparations system. . . . It has seemed to us that there was a need to focus on the fact that, one way or another, society was going to pay the price.''

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