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Towers Watson: Deepwater Horizon Disaster Pushes Increase in U.S. Tort Costs in 2010

Posted on 30 Jan 2012

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The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were the key drivers in the 5.1% increase in U.S. tort costs in 2010, according to the 2011 Update on U.S. Tort Cost Trends from global professional services company Towers Watson. Absent the costs from that event, tort costs would have shown an overall decrease of 2.4% for the year, the findings indicated.

In total, the U.S. tort system cost $264.6 billion, which translates to $857 per person, versus $820 per person in 2009. Personal tort costs totaled $96.7 billion; commercial tort costs were $168 billion. The 2011 report analyzes U.S. tort costs from 1950 through 2010, with projections through 2013.

“The incident in the Gulf was the single most important event affecting tort costs in 2010,” said Russ Sutter, Towers Watson consultant and author of the report. “While the ultimate tort costs related to this event remain uncertain, our 2010 tort cost estimate includes $19 billion of costs related to the spill.

“Still, the weak U.S. economy continued to have an influence on tort costs, which would have shown a decline minus the Deepwater Horizon event,” Sutter said. “The decline is most notable in the commercial auto line of business, perhaps the most economically sensitive coverage with a tort component. The insured commercial auto tort costs in 2010 were the lowest since 2000 and 19% lower than in 2004.”

Sutter noted that insured commercial auto tort costs were $16.1 billion in 2000. They rose to $20.4 billion in 2004 and were $16.5 billion in 2010.

Further, overall economic growth in 2010 was up 4.2%. As such, the ratio of tort costs to gross domestic product (GDP) rose in 2010, the second straight year of an increase in the ratio after five years of decline. Since 1950, growth in tort costs has exceeded growth in GDP by an average of about two percentage points.

Just as the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused an increase in costs in 2010 versus 2009, Towers Watson expects tort costs to show a 4.4% reduction in 2011 due to the lack of such an event during the year. Excluding the impact of the oil spill, Towers Watson forecasts tort costs in 2011 will show a modest increase relative to 2010, in the area of 3%.

“Personal automobile-related tort costs showed a 1.1% increase in 2010, and we expect a slightly higher increase in 2011,” Sutter said. “We are also seeing higher asbestos costs being recognized by U.S. insurers. While still well below the peak years of 2002 and 2003, asbestos costs were up in 2010, and insurer activity in 2011 that has already been announced suggests a potentially further increase in 2011.

“Medical malpractice trends continue to be mild, despite recent challenges and overturns of reforms that were implemented previously, and we do not see this changing in 2011,” Sutter said. “The increasing employment of physicians by hospitals may also exert some downward pressure on medical malpractice tort costs through more coordinated patient care and claims defense.”

Towers Watson estimates growth in U.S. tort costs will range from 2% to 6% in 2012, with a midpoint of 4%. A similar increase is seen for 2013, with a midpoint of 4%.