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29 May 2020

US Federal District Court case activity slows amid Covid-19 crisis, Lex Machina analysis finds

At least 287 cases filed this year were confirmed as a direct result of the pandemic

By Ben Edwards

The Thurgood Marshall Courthouse

The Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York Bumble Dee; Shutterstock

US Federal District Court case activity slowed in March and the first two weeks of April compared to the same periods in the previous two years as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, according to an analysis by Lex Machina.

Overall case filings, excluding product liability cases, fell 16% during March and the first half of April to 11,157. Lex Machina excluded product liability cases from its analysis as the numbers were skewed by two large ongoing multi-district litigation matters, which lifted the number of product liability case filings to 34,573 — a 321% jump compared to the previous two years.

Gloria Huang, legal content associate at Lex Machina, said: “Case filings [are not] significantly impacted year-over-year, and litigants continue to move forward with planned litigation, though the overall total remains slightly down in 2020 compared to previous years. Watching each specific practice area we notice, however, that filings are trending up for some and consistently down for others in 2020 compared with previous years.”

Practice areas that saw a sustained uptick in filings during the periods measured were antitrust and securities cases, according to the research.

Employment, insurance and patent cases all rose in 2020, arresting declines experienced in 2019, the data show. Practice areas that continued to a see a downward trend in case filings in 2020 included contracts, copyright, environmental, ERISA and torts cases.

Case terminations fell 19% in 2020 compared to previous years, mainly driven by a drop off in copyright case terminations, which decreased by 61% to 229. Case findings also mainly fell, though there was an increase in summary judgments, which rose 15% to 344. Judgments by trial fell the most, dropping 51% to 23. 

Lex Machina also examined how courts are being directly impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Huang noted that almost 29,000 Federal District Court cases had the words ‘covid’, ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’ contained within civil litigation documents and docket entries filed this year. Many of those appeared due to general orders filed in large numbers of cases regarding new court rules, Huang said.

Lex Machina also found 395 cases that were potentially caused by the pandemic, confirming 287 of them.

Further reading on the Covid-19 pandemic

After Covid-19, client tensions that pre-existed the pandemic will become intolerable — Law firms banking on a return to the old way of doing business once the immediate crisis is over are doomed, argues Rob Millard

Under lockdown socialising between international colleagues has increased — Colin Passmore outlines the measures Simmons & Simmons has been taking to promote staff wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis

After Covid-19 lockdown will virtual arbitrations become the new normal? — Michela D'Avino and Bahaa Ezzelarab argue that remote arbitration hearings should be carefully considered as an option to avoid costly delays

A question of timing: the different responses of US and UK elite law firms to Covid-19 — Looming decisions over associate pay and bonuses are a factor in the timing of UK law firm Coronavirus measures

Above all, this crisis too will pass — Rob Millard foresees large law firm mergers and accelerated digitisation in the wake of Covid-19

'It is about being proactive and decisive' — Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA managing partner Peter Scott on the thinking behind the firm's flexible working scheme

'Now is the time for law firms to deliver on their stated values' — Consultant Tony Williams advises law firm leaders to avoid knee jerk decisions and go into communication overdrive during the Covid-19 crisis

'I have realised how powerful technology now is': an Italian lawyer's take on Covid-19 — The lockdown is forcing Italians to embrace digitisation - and that even includes its public officials, writes Gabriella Geatti

Coronavirus risk may be unprecedented, but the fundamental principles of crisis response still apply — Crisis PR specialist Bethaney Durkin advises law firms impacted by the coronavirus to act quickly while avoiding a kneejerk response

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