Two findings dominate prior empirical studies of federal civil appeals. First, appeals courts are more likely to disrupt jury verdicts than bench decisions. Second, trial court defendants fare better than plaintiffs on appeal. . . . Using data from 46 large counties consisting of 8,038 trials and 549 concluded appeals, we find that state court appellate reversal rates for jury trials and appeals by defendants exceed the reversal rates for bench trials and appeals by plaintiffs. The reversal rate for trials appealed by plaintiffs is 21.5% compared to 41.5% for trial outcomes appealed by defendants. The reversal rate for jury trials is 33.7% compared to 27.5% for judge trials.
A subsidiary finding of the study is also interesting. Only about 12% of trials verdicts were appealed in civil cases, and only 57% of those appeals produced an appellate court opinion (presumably the other 43% of cases appealed either settled or had appeals abandoned, intentionally or due to attorney mistakes). Thus, the trial court verdict was the last word from the judicial system in about 93% of cases. More than two-third of the appellate court decisions in the 7% of cases where there were completed appeals affirmed the trial court ruling, so only about 2% of trial court verdicts are reversed on appeal. While judges verdicts are appealed more often than jury vedicts, when all is said and done the reversal rate for jury verdicts due to appeals (2.2%), is very similar to that of verdicts by judges (2.1%).
Appeal rates and appellate reversals are lowest in motor vehicle cases where only about 0.5% of trial court verdicts are reversed on appeal. Appellate reversals are highest in employment cases and professional malpractice (other than medical malpractice) cases where about 9% of all trial verdicts are reversed on appeal.
Verdicts against defendants are reversed at least half the time in cases where appeals are completed in intentional tort cases (including libel), non-medical professional malpractice cases, employment cases, lease cases, and contract cases that involve neither a vendor nor a purchaser. Product liability cases are the only kind of cases where plaintiffs do better on appeal than defendants, and even there the difference is not statistically significant.
Plaintiffs win about 55% of cases that go to trial, but this varies greatly by case type from 73% of contested mortgage foreclosure cases (where the bank is the plaintiff) to 27% of medical malpractice cases (where the injured party is the plaintiff). Defendants and plaintiffs appeal adverse decisions and prosecute those appeals to conclusion at similar rates; 6.6% for defendants and 7.1% for plaintiffs.
The gap in reversal rates on appeal is not sufficient to overcome the general win rate edge that plaintiffs have at trial.