The Complexity of Modern American Civil Litigation: Curse or Cure?

14 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2007 Last revised: 3 Jun 2017

See all articles by Stephen B. Burbank

Stephen B. Burbank

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: 2008


Originally prepared for the 2007 meetings of the Italian Association of Comparative Law, this paper seeks to excavate the roots of procedural complexity in modern American litigation. Proceeding from the view that there is no accepted definition of complex litigation in the United States, the paper discusses five related phenomena that the author regards as consequential: (1) the architecture of modern American lawsuits and the procedural philosophy that architecture reflects, (2) the volume of litigation and the public and private policies, attitudes and arrangements that affect it, (3) the dynamic nature of, and dispersed institutional responsibility for, American law, (4) the enormous amounts of money at stake in some litigation, and (5) the search for, and the forms of, relevant evidence in modern American litigation, and the impact of science and technology on both. The paper argues that, having opted for equity's approach to the joinder of claims and parties - in part to ensure effective enforcement of rights but also in part to make such enforcement more efficient - Americans have repeatedly turned to the tools of aggregation as a remedy for that success. In doing so, the people responsible for the courts often override the preferences of the parties (and thus the principle of party autonomy), alter the balance of power in litigation, and render trial effectively impossible. In such instances, they are creating complexity where it is not necessary for effective access to court; the stated goal of efficiency may be a delusion, and in any event aggregation can make little pretense to a goal of accuracy as opposed to dispute resolution simpliciter. Moreover, as the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 suggests, in a federal system the unremitting quest for aggregation may come at a heavy price to individual state autonomy. In sum, taken to the extremes to which Americans appear to be heading, complex litigation appears to be a cure that has become a curse.

Keywords: complex litigation, joinder of claims and parties, Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, aggregation

Suggested Citation

Burbank, Stephen B., The Complexity of Modern American Civil Litigation: Curse or Cure? (2008). Judicature, Vol. 91, P. 163, 2008, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 07-27, Available at SSRN: or

Stephen B. Burbank (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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