COVID-19 Has Not Stemmed Flow of New Federal Civil Litigation
April 2020 saw record civil filings in the U.S. District Courts with a total of 56,519 new lawsuits filed—more than double the 24,488 filed just six months ago. Driving this increase has been the growth in suits filed by veterans alleging personal injury from defective 3M earplugs. Even when these suits are removed from the totals, the overall flow of new lawsuits has continued seemingly unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figure 1. New Civil Suits Filed in Federal District Courts, FY 2020
(October 2019-April 2020)
(Click for larger image)
Veterans' lawsuits against 3M are not distributed in federal courts throughout the country. Back in April of last year as filings began to grow, a judicial panel consolidated veterans' cases involving these allegedly defective 3M earplugs and assigned United States District Judge M. Casey Rodgers in the Northern District of Florida to handle their pretrial matters since they involved common issues and questions of fact about the "design, testing, sale, and marketing of the Combat Arms Earplugs" (case 3:19-md-2885).
Table 1. Veterans Suits Against 3M Climb While Other Federal Civil Litigation Little Changed
Only four of the nation's 94 federal judicial districts appeared to have declines that may have signaled some impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—declines between February and April of at least 100 fewer cases, representing a drop of 25 percent or more. These four districts were all centered in or around major metropolitan areas. The Northern District of Illinois (Chicago) saw 378 fewer suits (down 38%), the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) had 239 fewer suits (down 25%), the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) recorded 220 fewer suits (down 34%), and the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn) experienced 192 fewer suits (down 38%).
Of the remaining districts, around four in ten experienced small declines while six in ten experienced increased filings. These changes more likely reflect normal month-to- month variation than any impact of COVID-19. Table 2 at the end of this report provides month-by-month civil filings by federal judicial district for the first seven months of FY 2020 (October 2019 through April 2020).
The picture presented for federal civil litigation contrasts sharply with trends in federal criminal prosecutions, which have plummeted due to COVID-19. New federal criminal filings in April 2020 fell by 80 percent after February (when federal office closures began due to COVID-19).
Civil suits brought by the federal government did decline by roughly 30 percent. However, since federally initiated suits are just one to two percent of all civil litigation, this decline had little impact on the civil caseloads of the federal courts.
Table 2. Civil Filings in Federal District Courts by Judicial District, FY 2020
Each month, TRAC offers a free report focused on one area of civil litigation in the U.S. district courts. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports by district, office, nature of suit or federal jurisdiction via the TRAC Data Interpreter.