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The Pandemic Continues to Impact Kansas City Area Trials and Verdicts

ABSTRACT: Data released by the Greater Kansas City Jury Verdict Service about jury trials in 2021 show that defendants continue to win a majority of cases, though verdict amounts for prevailing plaintiffs have increased. Defendants prevailed on almost 60% of the claims decided by KC-area juries last year, but the number of claims decided by juries has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

As we move to 2022 and look back on 2021, COVID continues to control the litigation landscape for the Kansas City metropolitan area. Data released by the Greater Kansas City Jury Verdict Service shows that the total number of jury trials in the Kansas City area rose more than 80% from 2020, but remains down more than 40% from pre-pandemic levels

In 2021, 54 trials were reported, compared to 29 trials in 2020, 86 in 2019, and 104 in 2018. The numbers appear to reflect both COVID’s ongoing impact on postponing civil jury trials and the Court’s attempt to push through the backlog of cases created by the Pandemic.

The Percentage of Jury Verdicts Favoring Defendants Remained Constant in 2021

In the Kansas City area, juries decided a total of 54 cases in 2021. Within those 54 cases, the Jury Verdict Service reports on the number of claims in each case which totaled 108 overall verdicts. Of the verdicts reported on the 108 claims, 41% (44 out of 108 claims) resulted in recovery for the plaintiff(s), while 59% (64 out of 108 claims) were decisions in favor of the defendant(s). Similarly, in both 2019 (75 out of 181 claims) and 2020 (30 out of 73 claims) 41% of claims resulted in recovery for the plaintiff, while 59% were decisions favoring defendants. The consistency over the last three years may reflect a plateau of the upward trend favoring defense verdicts, from 51% in 2017, to 52% in 2018, to 59% over the last three years. 

Overall Average Monetary Award in Plaintiff Verdicts Skyrocketed

Verdict amounts favoring plaintiffs dwarfed those in 2020. The overall average of plaintiff verdicts in the Kansas City area in 2021 was $1,956,489, which included two eight-figure verdicts of $41.4 million and $18 million. In 2020 jurors favoring plaintiffs awarded, on average, just over $500,000 with no eight figure verdict awards. 

Nearly one-third of the 2021 verdicts favoring plaintiffs (14 of 44) exceeded $1,000,000 in the Kansas City area, with 10 of 14 seven figure verdicts coming from State Courts and 4 of 14 coming from local Federal Courts. Additionally, more than a third of verdicts favoring plaintiffs (15 of 44) awarded damages between $100,000 and $999,999, with 13 of 15 coming from State Courts and only 2 coming from local Federal Courts.

In 2021, the two highest-dollar verdicts accounted for 69% of the total damages awards to plaintiffs ($59.4 million of $86 million total verdict awards), compared to 2020’s two highest-dollar verdicts accounting for 78.8% of the total damages awards to plaintiffs. Factoring out the two high-dollar “outlier” cases, from both years, verdicts favoring plaintiffs increased by more than 14x compared to 2020 verdicts. Taking a longer view, however, the average value of verdicts favoring plaintiffs in 2021, without outliers, remains below the average value in 2018 and 2019. In 2021, 35% of jury awards were below $100,000.

Missouri Proves More Defendant Friendly than Kansas in 2021

Missouri juries reached a verdict favoring defendants nearly 60% (57 of 96 claims) of the time. Whereas, Kansas juries reached verdicts favoring defendants only 42% (5 of 12 claims) of the time. Clay County was the only Missouri State Court in the Kansas City area, where the percentage of verdicts favoring plaintiffs (60% or 15 of 25 claims) exceeded verdicts favoring defendants. Similarly, Missouri juries in Federal Court reached verdicts favoring defendants 60% (3 of 5 claims) of the time.

Kansas State juries equally found in favor of plaintiffs and defendants. Whereas, Kansas Federal juries reached verdicts favoring plaintiffs in two-thirds of cases.

Trial Returns to State Courts

The number of state court trials and the percentage of total cases tried in state court rose dramatically.  In 2021 state court verdicts accounted for nearly 90% of claims, whereas federal court verdicts accounted for only 10.2% of claims.  This was a stark change from 2020, where federal and state courts both accounted for nearly 50% of claims, but a return to normalcy compared to 2018 and 2019, when state court claims accounted for more than 80% of verdicts.