Archive for the ‘Settlements’ Category

Litigating for the Sake of Litigating: A Temptation to Be Resisted

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

It really grinds my gears when attorneys start litigating for the sake of litigating without context or purpose. That’s right; I bet if you are a litigator, you know exactly what I am referring to.  I am litigator, and I am absolutely convinced that we would all be better lawyers and happier individuals if we just learned how to do our job with dignity and professionalism, while avoiding absurd tactics and unnecessary drama.

Maybe I am alone on this one (and part of me really wishes that I am), but I just don’t understand why some lawyers think it is beneficial to have one gear and one gear only during the litigation process –  to object and obstruct no matter what. Is it really necessary, for example, to resist any and all discovery requests by dreaming up objections that have no merit?  In the end, is impeding the flow of information during discovery really in the client’s best interest, and frankly, is it consistent with our ethical obligations as professionals?  It is my humble impression that this kind of obstructive behavior happens more than one might expect. So, we end up writing unnecessary motions and nasty letters and emails, we go to depositions to argue some more with the opposing attorney instead of focusing on the witness, and we create so much “bad blood” that the case becomes one about lawyers and not their clients. Is this consistent with our professional obligations? I certainly think not.

Isn’t it in the client’s best interest to share as much information as possible about the merits of the case so that the opposing party can make informed decisions about settling the case early instead of dragging the parties through litigation for years? Why would a plaintiff’s lawyer not want a defendant to know the nature of his claims, the extent of his damages, and the identity and subject matter of his experts’ testimony?  Sharing this type of information is exactly the reason why a Plaintiff is in litigation in the first place.

Similarly, doesn’t it help a defense lawyer to be a straight shooter early on in the discovery process so that the plaintiff will not go on to note 100 depositions and use every discovery tool just to make sure that defense counsel isn’t hiding something? If the defense to a case is weak, isn’t better for all parties to be on the same page (yes, even when a corporate defendant is not in the mood to hear bad news) so that a case that must be settled can be settled early without making defendant incur unnecessary defense costs? Pardon my cynicism, but since I am on my soapbox, let me say this as well: the interest in having billing time should never be a substitute for the client’s best interest.  One byproduct of being evasive in discovery is that the defendant client (especially a corporate client) might end up being misinformed about the merits of the case – not a good position to be in when the lawyer finally comes to his/her senses and recommends settlement, but the client is not on the same page.

We have got to stop taking positions that have no good faith basis.  If there is no evidence of contributory negligence, don’t claim contributory negligence.  If experts are retained to testify at trial before the expert designation deadline, don’t object to their disclosure during written discovery simply because the expert designation is not due for another three months. If you can’t resist speaking objections, there are better places than a deposition to hear yourself talk.  If you have to file a motion, file one because you have to, not because you got a new crop of summer associates or first year associates doing nothing but writing motions for the sake of writing motions. I can go on, and I am sure that, if you’re a litigator, you can contribute to this list.

Life is too short and our occupations too stressful to engage in the meaningless waste of spirit. Time spent on useless litigation could be time spend with our families. What do you think? Don’t be shy, hop on the soapbox….

Related Posts:

Why early settlement is a win-win for all

Mediation of Lawsuits: The Top 5 Things that Tick Me Off!

 

 

 

Don’t underestimate jurors. They really do get it – most of the time!

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

I just finished a two week trial that was probably one of the most complex medical cases of my 37 year career. Since the “resolution” of the case is the subject of a confidentiality agreement, I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of the case or its “resolution.” Nevertheless, what I am free to tell you is that having tried hundreds of jury trials over my career, it amazes me just how often jurors “get it” when it comes to doing their very best to understand the evidence thrown at them and to do “the right thing.”

The case involved about 8,000 pages of medical records. Jurors heard from 8 medical witnesses ranging from surgery, to infectious disease, to radiology to pathology. This was not a case involving “Anatomy 101″; it was an advanced course in the biomechanics of the spine, neural element compression, biofilms on hardware, pulmonary hypertension, deep vein thrombosis – well, you get the picture.

After nine grueling, long days of evidence, sitting in hard, non-cushioned chairs and having to endure seemingly endless bench conferences dealing with evidentiary issues and objections that the jury was not allowed to follow, our panel patiently waited for over two hours on their final day of service while the parties to the lawsuit worked out “a resolution” of the case. The trial was to end the next day (today). They, the jurors, would finally get to speak to us, rather than having us speak to them for over two weeks.

Once the details of the “resolution” were hammered out, the judge had the courtroom clerk bring the jury into the courtroom to take their “luxurious” wooden seats. The Court announced that the parties had “resolved” the case and that the jurors’ service was now completed. Nine plus days and countless hours of sitting and listening – and now – no chance to deliberate and tell the parties who they – the jurors - thought was right in this legal battle. The judge then advised them that they had served a most important function because many times (this being one of them) the parties could not reach agreement – uh “resolution” – without them. It was further announced by the Court that if they cared to do so, they were now free to speak with the lawyers.

Rather than gather up their belongings and hustle out the door, each and every one of them remained in the courtroom to share their thoughts and observations of the trial. Once again, as has happened so many times in my career, I was pleasantly surprised  and amazed by what they had to say. Peppered with questions by the lawyers to see if they “got it,” our jurors shared their observations about key issues in the case. The told us about their “take” on the evidence involving T1 versus T2 weighted MRI’s. They accurately recounted the evidence regarding the issues of “sub-clinical infection.” They shared their individual thoughts and reflections on what role the decedent’s underlying, complicated co-morbidities played in their analysis of causation.

We’re not talking about a panel of medical experts here. We’re talking about everyday folks, who brought their common sense and varying levels of education and life-experiences to the litigation table. They “got it”!

None of the parties will ever know what the jury’s eventual verdict would have been. Nevertheless, because of the uncertainty of that verdict, the opposing sides in this lawsuit worked their way through a morass of emotion, righteousness, principles – you name it – to get the case “resolved.”

I hear so often from “professionals” that the jury system is broken. They rant endlessly that we need “professional” finders of fact to arrive at just results. Oh really! If that’s the case, then why is it that each side can have highly qualified experts, who can’t agree on the interpretation of medical evidence? Maybe – just maybe – it takes people of plain common sense, goodwill and a sense of justice to get it right.

Have jurors arrived at verdicts in my career that make you want to retire from the practice of law? They have – but on very rare occasions. When you put aside the self-righteousness of bias and advocacy and reflect on verdicts, many lawyers – I for one – appreciate that juries really do “get it” and really try to do “the right thing.”

To all the cynics out there, don’t be so unwilling to appreciate what these citizens do to advance our system of justice. Is the system perfect? Far from it, but not as far from it as many would have you believe.

Let me end by simply saying – THANKS to our citizens who made-up our jury. Your patience, attentiveness, endurance and willingness to serve is very much appreciated. You could easily have dreamed-up a way to avoid service on the jury during the selection (voir dire) process (as so many do in so many pathetic ways), but you didn’t do that. Kudos to each and every one of you. You did advance the cause of justice. You made the parties to this lawsuit take note of the fact that maybe, just maybe, their view of the case was about to be tested in the crucible of the jury room. That knowledge and the reality of an impending verdict made them step back, take a deep breath and come to a “resolution” of their dispute. Well done, Citizens! I for one applaud you.

Week in Review (April 16 – 20, 2011) The Eye Opener Health, Law and Medicine Blog

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

From the Editor (Brian Nash)

Another week of great posts (IMHO) by our blawgers. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so since we have now surpassed 21,000 page views in the last 30 days. The number keeps rising. Our sincere gratitude to all our readers!

Our topics were once again quite varied. They spanned the law, health, science and medicine. We even had a piece on a local event – Marathon Kids. This piece is part of our new program to promote charities and civic organizations in our own backyard – Baltimore and Washington.

We try week in and week out to find topics of interest for you, our readers. If you ever have any suggestions for topics of interest to you, please leave a comment or send us an email or fill-out the contact form with your thoughts and suggestions. We’d love to hear from you.

Let’s get to it then. What did we cover this past week that you might be interested in reading? Take a look -

Why early settlement is a win-win for all

By: Michael Sanders

There is an old adage in the law that cases settle on the courthouse steps. There is a reason for that. When the parties are actually walking into court to try their case, they seem to suddenly recognize that there are significant risks to going to trial, and that there is serious money at stake. When you go to trial, only one side can win. The other side goes home a loser. Faced with such a stark outcome, both sides tend to become more reasonable in their assessment of their case and more willing to talk settlement. After all, despite all the years of experience that trial attorneys amass, no one can ever predict what a jury is going to do in any specific case. As one mediator I know likes to tell the litigants, going to court is like going to Vegas:  you roll the dice and you take your chances. Read more….

Milk from Mom: Effective in preventing common infant complication (NEC)

By: Jason Penn

The debate among parents regarding the use of human milk vs. formula wages on, but according to a recent study, you can chalk one up for the human body.  That study, headed by the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, concluded that premature babies fed human donor milk were less likely to develop the intestinal condition necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).  Both sides has its advocates, willing to do battle at any time. When it comes to NEC, Mom’s milk has the decided advantage. Read more….

H.I.V. treatment advances, but what are the implications of terminating research early?

By: Sarah Keogh

Last week, I read some exciting news about H.I.V. treatment and transmission. A New York Times article reported that a large clinical trial found that “[p]eople infected with the virus that causes AIDS are far less likely to infect their sexual partners if they are put on treatment immediately instead of waiting until their immune systems begin to deteriorate…” The study found that “[p]atients with H.I.V. were 96 percent less likely to pass on the infection if they were taking antiretroviral drugs…” These findings are overwhelmingly positive and the implication for public health is huge. Read more….

A Windy, Rainy but Fabulous Day in Baltimore: Marathon Kids Final Mile Celebration

By: Rachel Leyko

Despite the wind and rain, this past Saturday I volunteered at the Marathon Kids Final Mile Celebration Event at Western Polytechnic High School in Northwest Baltimore.  I learned of the event through the Junior League of Baltimore and to be honest, prior to Saturday, I did not know much about the organization, its purpose or effect on the children it sought to serve.  However, after Saturday’s event, not only was I impressed with the purpose of Marathon Kids, but I saw firsthand the positive effect this program has had on the children who have participated. Read more….

Acquired Brain Injuries: Causes and Impact

By: Theresa Neumann

On the heels of Jason Penn’s blogregarding calling “911″ for signs of a possible stroke, I decided to introduce a variety of acquired brain injuries for further discussion in future blogs since damage to the brain results in some of the most catastrophic injuries possibly sustained by the human body with significant “collateral damage” for all of the friends and family involved in the individual’s life. Read more….


Sneak Peak of the Week Ahead

Some topics we’ll be covering next week…and then some…

  • You or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer, now you have to deal with the horror. Jon Stefanuca will be writing a piece based on our experiences with a number of clients “living with cancer.”
  • Mike Sanders and I have both recently resolved cases involving families who have lost a child. Mike’s involved the death of a fetus very near term. He’ll share that story and the experience of the case with you.
  • Maybe those of you who have children with special needs are familiar with the local (Maryland and Washington, D.C.) resources to help you and your child. For those who may not be or just want to learn more, Jason Penn will be providing information on this next week.
  • You may have heard the recent news about labeling of certain medications for children. Sarah Keogh will report on this and also delve into some practical problems and issues that parents face every day in terms of medicating their children.
  • We’re going to begin a new series on exactly what is recoverable in our jurisdictions (Washington, D.C and Maryland) under what is known as the Survival Act and the Wrongful Death Act. We’ll be paying particular attention to issues involving what’s known as pecuniary benefits, loss wages and diminished earning capacity. Should be educational. We hope you enjoy it.

Have a great weekend, Everyone!

Why early settlement is a win-win for all

Friday, May 20th, 2011

There is an old adage in the law that cases settle on the courthouse steps. There is a reason for that. When the parties are actually walking into court to try their case, they seem to suddenly recognize that there are significant risks to going to trial, and that there is serious money at stake. When you go to trial, only one side can win. The other side goes home a loser. Faced with such a stark outcome, both sides tend to become more reasonable in their assessment of their case and more willing to talk settlement. After all, despite all the years of experience that trial attorneys amass, no one can ever predict what a jury is going to do in any specific case. As one mediator I know likes to tell the litigants, going to court is like going to Vegas:  you roll the dice and you take your chances. So often times, the closer a case gets to the trial date the more motivated the two sides are to talk settlement. But is there a better way?

A couple of recent cases made me start to think about settlements and how they come about. (If you missed it, Brian Nash wrote an excellent piece on the frustrations of mediation and trying to settle cases). I’ve recently handled two cases that illustrate how settlements work and how two cases can go down dramatically different routes to ultimately get to the same place. Both of these cases are subject to confidentiality agreements so I can’t divulge the names of the parties or the settlement amounts, but they were both seven-figure cases with significant injury.

In the first case, the patient alleged that her doctor failed to timely diagnose stomach cancer over a period of several years. By the time the patient was properly evaluated by another physician, the cancer had progressed to the point that there was virtually no chance of a cure, and the young woman was likely going to die in the next few years. In the second case, the patient alleged that he suffered serious neurological complications (motor and nerve dysfunction in his arms and legs) as a result of post-operative complications that were not treated quickly enough. In both cases, a lawsuit was filed in court.  At that point, the two cases diverged.

Case Example #1 – Getting it done early

In the cancer case, before any depositions had taken place, the defense attorney called and asked if we might be able to talk about resolving the case. That’s always a great call to get as a plaintiff’s lawyer because it means there is a good chance that you will be able to get a nice result for your client, which is always the ultimate goal. Within a matter of weeks, we had reached an agreeable number and the case was over.

Case Example #2 – Grinding it out to the courthouse steps

In the second case, there was no early talk of resolution. The case proceeded through the normal course of litigation, which in the District of Columbia usually means about eighteen months of discovery, depositions, expert meetings, etc. Twenty-five experts were hired to review records and testify. Twenty-seven depositions ended up being taken. The case got all the way up to the Thursday before trial was scheduled to start on the following Monday morning. At that point, the parties finally reached agreement on a number and the case was settled.

Why the difference in approach?

So we have two cases, both with significant injury and both with questionable care. One case settled right away, and one dragged on for almost two years before settling. Is there a simple reason why? Not that I’ve been able to figure out. After years of doing this, I, like every other attorney, get a gut feeling as to what cases are worth, which ones will likely settle, which ones will go to trial. But it’s still a gut feeling; there’s no science involved.

It’s usually a combination of factors – the quality of the medical care, the severity of the injury, the likeability of the plaintiff and the defendant (more important than most people realize), the specific jurisdiction you’re in, etc. On top of these factors you have a myriad of psychological reactions that pop-up in lawsuits and there is no predicting those. Sometimes people get entrenched in fighting for no other reason than to fight. Some people get a number in their head for what a case is worth and don’t want to budge. So even though I can’t sit here and explain why certain cases settle early and some settle late, I do want to talk about the value of early settlements to all sides.

Common Sense and good economics say “get it done early”

It is easy to see why early resolution of cases benefits everyone, and it comes down to the costs of litigation. In today’s world, it can easily cost $75,000 to $100,000 (if not more in many instances) just in expenses to take a case to trial; it can easily be much higher in complex cases. (I know of one attorney who spent $300,000 on a case that he took to trial; he lost the case). These expenses consist primarily of expert fees paid to doctors to review records and testify. Expert doctors routinely charge at least $400 per hour and oftentimes more for their time. For trial testimony, doctors usually charge around $5,000 per day (some substantially more). If it runs into two days, that’s $10,000 just for one witness. It’s not unusual to spend tens of thousands of dollars for expert fees alone.

On top of that there is the cost of court reporters for each deposition, copying charges, obtaining medical records, long-distance calls, travel expenses, etc. Going through litigation is an expensive undertaking, and the longer the case goes on the more expensive it is. On the plaintiff side, all of those expenses are usually advanced by the attorney (in jurisdictions where this is permitted), but they all get paid back by the client at the end of the case (assuming the plaintiff wins; if there is no recovery, the plaintiff’s attorney “eats” those costs). So every dollar spent on litigation comes straight out of the client’s portion of the recovery.

On the defense side, insurers and self-insured institutions (like hospitals) have those same expenses, but on top of that, they also have to pay legal fees to their attorneys. Defense attorneys charge by the hour for everything they do on a file from reviewing records to meeting with clients to talking to experts to taking depositions. The complexity of medical negligence cases means long hours of work on each file, generating substantial legal fees. Those fees get paid to the defense lawyer whether the case is won, lost or settled at the last minute. The longer the litigation lasts, the higher the legal fees.

Of course it always costs money to investigate a case. There is no avoiding that.  Records need to be obtained and reviewed. Experts need to be retained for an initial opinion. But instead of spending $75,000 or $100,000 (or more) on a case, it may cost only several thousand dollars to work-up a case to get it ready to file – that is, to be in a position where early resolution can be discussed with the defendant. If a case can be settled early on, all of those thousands of dollars that would have gone to litigation costs go straight to the client. That is a huge benefit to the client.

The defendant benefits too. No hospital or insurance company wants to spend money needlessly. Early resolution means that the defendant doesn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and tens of thousands more in legal fees. The only way it makes sense to spend that money is if, at the end of the day, the “defendant” (read insurer/hospital) believes it can either win the case or settle it for less down the road. But here’s the thing – a case can usually settle early on for less than the case would be worth had the case gotten closer to trial. This isn’t always true, of course, but as a general rule, a good case does not become less valuable over time.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t undersell their cases to get an early settlement, but in practical terms, attorneys and clients are usually willing to consider some discount because they know that an early settlement is to their mutual benefit.The plaintiff gets a guaranteed financial payment now rather than waiting eighteen months for a trial and then a possible appeal that may drag the case out another two years. In that circumstance, the plaintiff is usually willing to take a little less money now because it is certain. It’s the age-old question: would you rather have X amount of money now, or wait eighteen months for the chance of getting more? For most plaintiffs, it’s an easy answer. Also the defense can pay less on a case than it would have ended up paying anyway and save thousands in expenses and legal fees by doing so. It’s a win-win for all parties.

Just do the math!

The big secret with early settlements (and which can sometimes be difficult to explain to a client) is that even though an early settlement might be for less than what a jury might award, the client can actually put more money in his or her pocket with a lower settlement amount. Again, we’re back to the issue of litigation costs. If a firm spends $10,000 to investigate a case and get it ready to file rather than $100,000 to take a case to trial, that is an extra $90,000 that goes straight to the client. Also, some law firms will have a contingent fee agreement in which the fee is higher (usually from 1/3 to 40%) when the case goes to trial, which serves to compensate for the additional time,  risk and expense of going to trial. When you consider the higher legal fees and the increased costs of litigation that have to be paid back, it can actually take a substantially larger jury verdict to put the same amount of money in the client’s pocket as he or she would get with a smaller early resolution.

Some cases may just need to be tried

I don’t mean to imply that every case that gets filed should be settled early. Far from it. Some lawyers undoubtedly file cases that are simply without merit and should be defended vigorously. Other cases – while they may be defensible – fall into a middle category where the care may not be the best but the plaintiff has problems with his/her case too. Some cases can be difficult to evaluate without further investigation and discovery to gauge the strength of the case. In those cases, it is entirely appropriate to proceed with litigation – even on a somewhat limited scale through discovery. No doubt there are instances where insurance companies do need to protect the interest of their doctors, and sometimes that means vigorously defending a case all the way through trial.

Some cases, however, – the cases where the medical care is truly egregious and the damages are clear – need to be looked at early on to see if the two sides can be reasonable and find some middle ground. If a case is going to ultimately settle (and believe me, experienced attorneys and claims adjusters can usually identify those cases early on), it makes sense to talk sooner rather than later. It requires compromise on everyone’s part, but the value to both sides is so great that it makes sense to talk early and get it done.

What has been your experience?

I’d be curious to know the experience of our readers. Has anyone been involved in a lawsuit that settled? Did it resolve early on or did it stretch out for years? Do you think the time involved had any impact on the amount of the settlement? Any tips or tricks you might suggest? Let’s hear from you – maybe we can all learn how to get these cases resolved earlier and stop wasting time, resources and money.

You may also want to read these related posts:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

A View from the Shady Side – The Defense Perspective

Every bad outcome does NOT a malpractice case make! Some practical advice

 

Mediation of Lawsuits: The Top 5 Things that Tick Me Off!

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Having practiced law now for almost four decades, I’ve been involved in the resolution/settlement of thousands of cases. When I was a much younger lawyer, we didn’t have formal mediation sessions. We would  just talk with the other lawyer, pick-up a phone or sit down with the claims adjuster and just worked it out. Now the in-thing is formal mediation.

For those who may not be familiar with the mediation process, in the context of our firm’s areas of practice, it is basically a formal meeting involving all parties to a legal dispute, who hire an independent person called a mediator, to try to resolve the dispute between the parties through settlement. The intent is to avoid the risk, uncertainty and expense associated with taking the dispute to trial.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a good mediation session settles some cases that might otherwise be difficult to work out. That being said, I seem to be running into some trends over the last couple of years that are – quite frankly – starting to really p**s me off!

Normally, I would keep my lawyer-rants to discussions with those in my law firm or with some lawyer pals, who share the same frustrations. Recently, however, I read a post by a legal blogger – a blawger (a lawyer who blogs), Scott H. Greenfield, who took to task legal bloggers for not taking a stand on issues. His blawg is titled Dead Lawyers Have No Enemies. I decided I would do the Lazarus thing and take a stand on an issue that’s been bugging me for some time – modern day mediation and mediators.

In no particular order, here is my list of the top 5 things about mediation that just tick me off:

1. No meaningful discussions before the mediation session

How many times now have I heard the mantra -”No, we don’t want to engage in any settlement discussions (interpretation – no first offer) until we get to mediation.” Far too many times I’m afraid. Why is this? Can’t people get the process started before mediation so that we all can make an intelligent decision as to whether formal mediation has a chance of working or whether the upcoming mediation has all the ear-markings of a waste of time and money?

Here’s the mediation scenario: The clients have to miss work or otherwise be inconvenienced to be at mediation. Many times we have to travel some distance to attend. We sit through the mandatory (but necessary for the clients) introduction by the mediator advising those new to this process who the mediator is, what his/her background is, what the process is all about, how it’s confidential and nothing said can ever be used outside the mediation session. The confidentiality form is signed and the parties go to their separate rooms.

On behalf of my clients (the party bringing the lawsuit), we make a demand. After some time passes (which varies greatly depending on the mediator), the first offer is made. Lately, more often than not, the offer is some ridiculously low-ball amount. The mediator tells you and your clients: “Don’t take it personally. They’re just trying to send a message” You fight every instinct welling-up inside you to send your own message by just walking out. After getting control of your own emotions, you try to calm your clients down. Not easy to do sometimes – for instance when (by way of a real life example) my clients just been told their dead child is worth $25,000. Of course that’s not what’s being said by the defendant’s insurer, but that’s exactly how it resonates – in this example – with the plaintiffs, who do take it personally.

There’s no doubt that when as a plaintiff’s lawyer you make a demand that’s simply ridiculous, you somewhat deserve to get low-balled in Round 1. However, when you purposely try to put a reasonable number on the table – albeit giving yourself room to negotiate, it is enraging and detrimental to the process on many levels when you get low-balled by the defense. Apparently, the defense doesn’t believe you actually tried to make a reasonable initial demand. They take a reasonable demand as a sign of weakness in the plaintiff’s case. Yet, if I were to take the other approach and start with an equally outrageous demand in Round 1, I would never hear the end of it from the other side. Sure – “reasonable” is in the eye of the beholder, but skilled advocates generally have a sense of the range it takes to be in at the end of the day to settle any given case.

My free advice: If mediators were doing their job, they would get the negotiations underway before the first formal mediation session. My suggestion: let’s get all the foreplay out of the way before the formal mediation session. If it’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time, then let’s put our efforts and money to better use and not mediate in the first place.

2. The Defense not understanding the impact of their conduct

Having been a defense lawyer before switching sides (referred to by insurance adjusters as “going to the dark side“), for years, I didn’t sit in the room with the injured party when we sent the first offer (and the second and the third and….) into the plaintiff’s room. Had I been a fly on that room’s wall, maybe I would have realized a lot earlier just what impact our “message” was going to have on that injured party, whose case we claimed we were trying to settle.

As the years went by and I saw some plaintiff lawyers packing-up their bags and heading-out with their clients as a response to our message offer, I started to get it. Call me a “slow learner,” but at least I had my epiphany.

Now that I am sitting with the injured person who brought the lawsuit, let me share a bit of advice with my colleagues on the other side. Don’t p**s off the plaintiff and in turn his/her lawyer by sending the wrong message. Does any defense lawyer or risk management person really believe the plaintiff wants to hear: “Your dead child (or replace with – your injured child, your missing leg, your paralyzed son – and every other injury that has befallen a plaintiff) is worth $25,000 or $50,000.”

Now that I’ve been sitting with these injured or grieving people for years, I get to see firsthand  just what kind of impact a low ball, “message offer” has on people. It starts the process out on the wrong foot. You – as the lawyer representing the injured person – have to try to remain calm in order to calm your client down. You try to convince them that this is just a game being played and they shouldn’t read anything into it. Well, Dear Defense Lawyer and Claims Person, it is not a game to the person who’s been injured!

Apparently many defense lawyers are relying on their bible, Mediation 101, which ostensibly tells them that when they are in the initial general session, the defense should tell the plaintiffs just how sorry they, the defense, are for the injuries and losses the plaintiffs have suffered.

Well here’s some free advice from the dark side: With the first chance you have to show that this empathy was really sincere, don’t slap the plaintiffs in the face with a low ball, message offer. It’s not a good technique!

If you, the defense, take this approach, you have completely lost all credibility, the war is on and now it will take hours of worthless and unnecessary haggling to get to where this all could have started if the parties had started out in good faith efforts to negotiate. Hopefully, Advanced Mediation Technique – 201 will be coming out soon!

3. Mediators who are nothing but high-priced messenger services

Finding a qualified mediator seems to be getting harder and harder. The good ones seem to be booked-up for months to come. Maybe that’s because they are good. Why does it seem to me that every retired judge now thinks that he or she is a qualified mediator? Sorry, Former Member of the Judiciary, but you are not all qualified. Some are; some are not.

How many times have the litigants experienced a mediator who simply walks from room to room and delivers the latest offer or the latest demand? My answer: way too many times! If I need a courier, I’ll hire a courier. They are a heck of a lot less expensive and could be equally effective.

Since so many of us “in the trenches” are searching for skilled, qualified and effective mediators, who don’t cost an arm and a leg (and dramatically increase the costs of the case), a lot of newbie mediators are among the selection pool. Well, I for one am not interested in a mediator getting his or her training-wheels on my client’s case. Can’t there be some universally accessible databank or message board or listserv in today’s digital age where litigators can freely express their views, comments and criticisms of mediators so that litigants can have a real choice of qualified, reasonably priced and effective mediators? Maybe I’ll make that my next project – in my spare time.

4. Using mediation as a “feeling out” session

I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to a mediation session where the goal seems to be that one side – usually the defense – wants to get a feel for just how much it’s going to take to get the case settled or to get a feel for the plaintiff and how they will come across to a jury if the case doesn’t settle.

Sorry, but mediation is not discovery! If the defendant’s insurer or claims person wants to gain these insights, then they should take the time, in serious cases, to attend the plaintiff’s deposition. If they can’t be there, maybe they will be interested to learn that there’s new technology called a video deposition. It’s only been around for years!

In this same vein, it fascinates me when I hear a messenger mediator tell me some of the justifications for why a low-ball offer being made is well-founded. The mediator (particularly those in the messenger class) takes as gospel so-called facts about the case from the defense and conclude they are being reasonable – or even magnanimous – when these facts are nowhere to be found in the evidence of the case being mediated!

Recently, I had a defendant and its settlement team of lawyers and adjusters, totally enamored with their causation defense (admitting in essence the caregivers had totally failed to follow acceptable standards of good medical care but claiming – “our conduct, which we recognize was awful, didn’t cause your client’s injuries”) that drove the entire negotiations toward abject failure. After hours of meaningless back-and-forth, small, incremental offers and demands, the whole mediation session fell apart.  If the mediator had truly known the real facts of the case, he would have realized that this so-called defense was in large part predicated on a defense expert’s unfounded opinion. Truth be known, that “expert” had totally failed to read our client’s subsequent care records, which disprove his baseless opinions.

Should I have told the defense where they were wrong? Or – should I save this information for cross-examination if I honestly believe the case is not going to settle and I will have to try it? Tough call – but I opted for the latter course since the negotiations were going nowhere fast anyway. I made a judgment call that the reserve put on the case by the healthcare was so low that this case would not settle no matter what they learned that day.

Mediation sessions are intended to resolve cases, not act as a session for the claim’s representative to figure out what the case is about! Just how many serious cases do these claims people have that they can’t come prepared for mediation? How in the world do they set a reserve on a case not understanding the medicine (in a medical malpractice case) of the case?

A free, albeit unsolicited message for our claims brethren: If you don’t or can’t understand the medicine before you put a value on it, learn the medicine from your defense lawyer. Isn’t that what you are in part paying for when you pay their hourly fees? Really know your file and question your defense counsel about their recommendations. Simply put – come to mediation understanding the facts and the law as best you can. Don’t see mediation as just another opportunity to spend a day out of the office.

5. Mediators who don’t, can’t or won’t challenge the positions of each side

Maybe this is a corollary to my “don’t be just a messenger,” but it holds a special place in my heart– so it makes the list. I can’t tell you how many mediators announce during the initial, joint session (where all parties and counsel are present) that they are not advocates for one side or the other. Well that’s fine; however, there comes a time when the position of one party or the other needs to be challenged by the mediator.

Messenger Mediators just listen and are often blindly impressed by the arguments of the lawyers for each side. Here’s the problem – a good mediator needs to be able to understand the validity – or lack thereof – of those arguments to be effective. If a mediator doesn’t understand the law or the facts of a case well enough to challenge either side’s position, then what purpose do they serve?

Admittedly, a mediator cannot possibly know the “facts” of a case as well as the litigants. That does not mean, however, that they should simply show-up and facilitate a settlement by trying to act as a middleman in reaching the “sweet spot” of dollars that both sides are willing to accept to reach a settlement. While this approach may work in some smaller cases, it simply does not work in more complex and higher value cases.

Some of the best mediators I have had the pleasure to work with listen to the arguments, analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of those positions and then challenge the parties and lawyers by questioning the validity of their arguments and position. When that’s done, it is amazing how progress is made toward a resolution of the case. Simply put, good mediators cut through the posturing and puffery and expose the weaknesses of each side’s case. The only way that can happen is if the mediator has taken the time to really learn the case. In my field of medical malpractice, that may mean taking the time to read the key medical records, key depositions or whatever other “evidence” each side believes supports their respective position and using that knowledge to cut to the heart of the issues.

Sure – it may mean paying a mediator a bit more for their time, but if it gets a settlement done, isn’t it worth it? I for one would rather spend money for a mediator who can perform this type of service than one who spends hours in the mediation session just listening to a party’s specious arguments, getting a new offer or demand and then doing the shuttle diplomacy gig. Way too often, this time-consuming shuttling from one room to the other doesn’t work. The mediator’s time “in the room” would be much better spent by questioning, probing and dissecting the relative positions of each side. That – in my experience – works more often than not and gets the case settled. Every case has weaknesses for all parties involved. So – Mediators – find the weaknesses, expose them and use them to bring reality to the mediation process in order to get it done. You don’t have to be an advocate, but you do need to be pro-active.

What are your pet peeves?

This blawg rant is not intended just for lawyers or mediators. I’d love to hear from people – like clients/parties to a lawsuit, who have participated in today’s modern marvel – formal mediation sessions.

Lawyers and litigants – plaintiff and defense – what is it about mediation that you think needs to be fixed? Maybe if we all put our heads together, we can make this a more meaningful process for everyone.

Related Posts:

One More Mediation Pet Peeve, John Bratt, Miller & Zois

 

 

 


 

 

Every bad outcome or injury does NOT a malpractice case make! Some practical advice.

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

I recently came across a posting on the internet, which reminded me of a number of the type of calls we receive from people throughout the year. I thought it might be useful to share this post and some comments for you to consider about “whether you have a lawsuit” worth pursuing.

The post read:

I recently had to undergo epidural injections at a local pain management clinic. I was told the stats about the procedure and what signs to look for regarding problems. I had lower lumber injections, and the doctor that did the procedure told me that he punctured the spinal cord, thus releasing fluid. My problem was that I was sent home, to drive myself, and had made repeated calls to them regarding a monstrous headache that made even getting out of bed difficult. After almost 14 days, I finally called the local ER and was given totally different advice from the on-call doctor. I then finally recieved the blood patch….is there any liability here?

The balance of the post consisted of a lawyer responding to the question and some back and forth between the two, which ended – properly so – with the lawyer learning that the potential client had fully recovered, had gone through two weeks of hell and had incurred medical expenses for follow-up care to the tune of $3,750. The lawyer then told the person –

would that $3750 have to be spent regardless of the delayed treatment?

If so, you really don’t have a claim for much of anything. Even if it wouldn’t, to have a valid claim, you would also have to prove their actions were substandard in regards to the established standards of care. Generally, for little or no damages, you are not going to get an attorney to take on a case that will easily cost 10′s of thousands of dollars.

A Basic Problem – Pure Economics

Putting aside the issues of whether the original care giver violated a standard of reasonable care and whether that care caused injury, the pure economics of this situation does not justify the bringing of a medical malpractice case – “little or no damages…[for] a case that will easily cost 10′s of thousands of dollars.”

This type of injury, while clearly serious to the patient, luckily was not permanent in nature. Ask yourself, if you were on a jury hearing this case (assuming you found in favor of the patient-plaintiff by deciding that the doctor’s care was substandard and caused injury) - what amount would you award someone for two weeks of pain and suffering and no permanent injury?

Next, take your answer and do the following math:

  • The “10′s of thousands of dollars” the lawyer mentioned are real numbers that would be spent in a case like this. Expert witness fees (which can be enormous), deposition costs, costs to obtain the records, filing fees, etc. would easily be in excess of $50,000 by the time this case was concluded. Trust me – this is a conservative figure!
  • Legal fees – as many of you are aware, these cases are often taken on a contingency fee basis. The lawyer will charge a percentage (varying from as low as one-third to perhaps a high of forty percent).

Unfortunately, the economics of the case are a practical reality that must be and are addressed with these type of potential case inquiries. That doesn’t mean is easy to explain this to someone who is very upset (many times rightfully so) with the care they received or the attitude of the care giver.

The Client’s Perspective

Clearly no one wants to hear that the injury, inconvenience, medical expenses or pain they endured simply isn’t worth the lawyer taking. Some will read this and no doubt scream out – “You see, it is all about the money after all!” Well, I guess in a way it is – in part. Put yourself back in the shoes of the patient-caller. Let’s say their case is similar to the example (above) case: bills of $3,750, pain for two weeks, no permanency, no future care costs. Whatever number you came up with as our “juror in the box” for a verdict, now go ahead and subtract one-third to forty percent for the fee and – let’s say – $30,000 of costs. Why do I know that the resulting number is a negative one?

Hate to say it – but that’s the cold, hard reality of these situations. Imagine the lawyer trying to explain how the lawyer made some money but the client netted absolutely nothing! Not a place I’ve been or ever want to be.

So What Can This Person Do?

Well there are choices.

  • Try the old-fashioned method – try to work it out with the doctor or health care provider
  • If that doesn’t work, in most jurisdictions, you can always file a small claims action by yourself. The rules of evidence are relaxed in most jurisdictions and the judges tend to be quite liberal in their interpretation of the applicable laws – letting you have your day in court.
  • File a grievance with the local licensing board – they really do care and will take virtually all complaints seriously – at least that has been my experience in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

I strongly urge that you try option #1 – just see if you can sit down and discuss it with the doctor. If you are asked to sign some waiver form or agreement, before you sign it, see if you can have a lawyer take a look at what you’re signing first. You don’t want to waive any rights you might otherwise have. All that being said – try to work it out. It sure is a lot less stress and way less time-consuming. It also may go a long way in making the system work. Many doctors and health care providers are willing to at least listen. Watch your tone; don’t accuse them of being incompetent, uncaring or the like – just have a meaningful discussion and see if you can’t just work it out. If it doesn’t work, and you still believe you have been wronged, there are always options #2 and #3.

The “Suggestion Box”

I’m sure our readers would appreciate any useful suggestions by those who have found themselves in this situation. What approach(es) did YOU take? Did they work? I for one am always interested in hearing our reader’s suggestions – especially in for a topic like this. If they make sense, I assure you we’ll share them in a another post on a related topic. Take a moment and give us your thoughts.

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Confidential Settlement Agreements: Which should win – privacy or right-to-know?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Understanding the term – ‘confidential settlement agreement’ – is the easy part. What’s the ‘sticky wicket’ of this ever-growing form of  settlement agreement? - the conflicting interests of the parties’ privacy concerns versus the public’s right to know.

Let’s start by providing you with the somewhat typical, generic language used (in some form or other) of such provisions in a settlement agreement:

Confidentiality:  The Releasing Party (Releasor) agrees that neither he nor his attorneys shall reveal to anyone, without prior written consent of the Party Being Released (Releasees), the facts or any of the terms of this Settlement and Release Agreement. Releasor will not disclose the identities of the Releasees, whose conduct was the subject of this lawsuit.  It is further understood and agreed to by the parties to this Settlement and Release Agreement that no part of this non-disclosure agreement shall be construed to prohibit counsel from making reasonable and necessary disclosures to carry out the administrative and ministerial tasks incident to this settlement.

Needless to say, these can be quite specific and many times are aimed at prohibitions of disclosure of not only the fact of settlement but also any specificity regarding the identity of the settling party and the amount of the settlement – basically prohibitions against disclosing any identifying information to the public and even more specifically to any form of media outlet. It’s one thing for Client Jones to tell his neighbors that he just settled his lawsuit for thousands or millions of dollars; it’s quite another when a settling doctor or hospital sees their name splashed across the print or online headlines of local media outlets.

The Settling Defendant’s Interests:

This is perhaps the easiest  to understand from the viewpoint of the person who agrees to pay settlement monies to the plaintiff who sued them. In the context of medical malpractice cases, no health care provider, especially a physician, wants their good-name/reputation tarnished by news of having settled a malpractice case. Since the reasons for agreeing to a settlement might be avoidance of a verdict  in excess of  the physician’s malpractice insurance, it could be argued that in such instances it is simply not fair to broadcast the fact that the physician settled because they knew they had done something wrong which hurt one of their patients. Keep in mind, that in settlement agreements there is usually a statement that the settling party – e.g. the physician sued for medical malpractice – denies all allegations of wrongdoing.

That being said, what about those instances – which are not the minority in our case load – in which the conduct of the health care provider does constitute a violation of the standard of care – aka medical malpractice/negligence? Why shouldn’t the public be aware that Dr. Smith did render bad care that caused serious harm? Was this just a ‘bad day’ for Dr. Smith in the operating room or  office or a pattern of poor care? Doesn’t the public have a right to know this?

Dr. Smith’s counsel will argue, as trained to do, that there is a defense to every case. In my 35 years of experience, this is often the case. Some defenses are better than others; some are flat out lame. Can’t the public decide on their own? Don’t they have a right to make that judgment? Some would argue they don’t since they don’t possess the expertise to understand the many nuances that go into these settlement decisions. Are they right? It seems you will never get the chance to decide since you will never know about what happened due  to confidentiality agreements.

The Plaintiff-Patient’s Interests:

It is unfortunately the case that when a number of our client’s wins a large amount of  cash in settlement or verdict, they fear their past and present friends and relatives will then come out of the woodwork. I liken it to professional sports figures whose coterie of friends are at  best ‘hangers-on’ for the money and good times.

People who have had to relive tragedies in their lives don’t want the pubic to know for a multitude of reasons.  We have represented people whose parents didn’t even know (and to this day don’t know) that they had been in a lawsuit and even gone through a trial! We have always respected the client’s right to privacy. Does that trump the public’s right to be informed?

The Plaintiff Lawyer’s Interest:

What interest could the lawyer possibly have? – you ask. Since this is my bailiwick, permit me to answer the question – marketing. Have you had occasion to visit the websites or print media advertisements of any plaintiff lawyers recently. If you have, I suspect you have seen the crawl or large font posting of verdicts and settlements blasted across the screen/page. If you have a confidentiality provision, this probably should not be the situation. I say probably because some lawyers insist that the right to publicize ‘anonymously’ be  crafted into the confidentiality agreement. Many likely do not have this ‘exception’ language but seem to have amnesia when it comes to this provision.

If you look at our website, you won’t see this form of advertising/marketing. Does this mean we haven’t settled a number of cases for large amounts of money for our clients? Hardly. Since the beginning of this year alone, we have settled a number of cases for millions of dollars, with the likelihood of many more  to come – God willing! We have elected to respect our client’s  right to privacy on the one hand. We have also determined that in some instances there will be no settlement if we put our firm’s interests of marketing ahead of the client’s ability to obtain a settlement, when the defendant is demanding confidentiality.

Do we have news accounts of past verdicts on our website? We do. Those cases went to trial and were deemed newsworthy enough by local media to report on the verdicts regardless of our position on marketing. They were in the public domain; we took the marketing advantage. Hey, we’re just being lawyers. Have these cases gone to appeal or settled post-verdict? You’ll never know.

Have we settled cases for millions of dollars?  Well, you’ll never know that either. We do understand our client’s rights to privacy and right to  have their interests in obtaining a settlement ahead of our marketing interests.

So what is the answer?:

From the viewpoint of the advocates of the public’s right to know, they can effectively argue in most instances that the client doesn’t have a privacy right once a lawsuit is filed. This is a matter of pubic record. Anyone can go to the courthouse in your county or state (in the case of the District of Columbia – the Superior Court) and ask to see the court files – absent an order sealing a record, which is by far the exception rather than the rule. Even in situations where a case settles under a confidentiality agreement, if one looks at the court docket of any given case, you can trace the history of a lawsuit. When you see a dismissal, do you not understand that absent the case being dismissed in favor of a defendant on motion or by court order for failure to prosecute, the case most likely settled? What happened to the non-disclosure of the fact of settlement or the likely parties to the settlement?

Are there other means to determine if a medical malpractice case has settled? If so, for how much? Well there are and there are not. Were you aware that whenever a doctor settles a lawsuit he/she is reported to the National Practitioners Data Bank? Well, all the information one could ever want is stored there, but the public has no access to this data bank – at least in terms of getting information as to a specific healthcare provider. The following is the express statement on the NPDB’s FAQ page:

The Data Banks are prohibited by law from disclosing information on a specific practitioner, provider, or supplier to the general public. However, persons or organizations may request information in a form that does not identify any particular healthcare organization or practitioner for research purposes.

Well, there goes that potential source of right to know.

What about the local state licensing agencies?  Let’s take Maryland, for example. The entity that controls the licensing and disciplining of physicians in the state is known as the Maryland Board of Physicians. It also has a website, which, quite  frankly, is much more transparent and informative than many and certainly more informative than the NPDB. By going to the “Search Practitioner Profile” link, you can type in a doctor’s name and find out, among other things, if there has been any disciplinary action against that physician for the past ten years. Maryland should be applauded, in fact, for its access to information on physicians. Could it do more, perhaps. That’s for another day.

In the District of Columbia, did you know you can access similar information? I invite you to undertake this exercise. Don’t be thrown-off when you do your Google, MSN or other search engine inquiry and see the District of Columbia Board of Medicine, but then you find you have been linked to the California Department of Consumer Affairs – for the Physical Therapy Board of California. Must just be a broken link! Transparency may also have a different definition in D.C.

In many of our posts we urge our readers to be informed consumers when it comes to their healthcare. Is one of the ways to become educated about your doctor or the hospital to which you planned to be admitted the  ’best’ or ‘right’ healthcare provider for you to do such a search? We think so – at least in part. Being sued or even settling a case does not necessarily mean a physician or hospital is a bad doctor or a bad hospital. It may, however, particularly in the case of the physician, be a place you may care to start your query.

So, what is the public’s right to know in terms of confidential settlement agreements? Does the public’s (i.e. your) right to know trump that of the patient/plaintiff or the healthcare provider/defendant? Should there be a restriction on the use of these agreements – even if that also means a prohibition on the lawyer’s right to publish these settlements on their websites or ads?

I encourage and welcome your thoughts and comments. Please take a moment of your time and share these with our community of readers.

Baltimore: After police officer accidentally kills bystander, settlement reached but terms confidential

Monday, May 31st, 2010

A Rosedale woman, and mother of two, was killed when a Baltimore County police officer accidentily side-swiped her 1997 Mercury Tracer.

Bonnie Pappas, age 45, was traveling across Pulaski Highway when a police officer, Ray Pabon, sped over a hill at an estimated 85.7mph. The investigations conducted by both the Baltimore County Police Department and Pappas’ family found that Officer Pabon did not have the emergency lights and/or sirens on at the time of the collision.

A nearby liquor store’s surveillance tape confirmed that at the time of the crash, the cruiser lights and sirens were off. Ronald Parker, counsel for the Pappas’ family stated:

…an officer who arrived moments after the crash ran to Pabon’s car and turned on the emergency lights.

“We contend that had the officer had his siren and lights on when he was driving, our client would have seen or heard them,” Parker said.

A deputy states attorney for Baltimore County , Sue Schenning, later claimed that prosecutors had decided not to file charges of vehicular manslaughter. Grounds for this decision were claimed to be that lack of evidence could prove Officer Pabon acted with gross negligence, which is defined at times in Maryland as the conscious disregard for the high risk of others.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the civil suit was filed by Mr. Parker on behalf of the Pappas’ family, which sought $1 million in damages for Ms. Pappas’ estate and $50 million  for her two children. Although the suit was settled, the award and terms remain confidential. Keep in mind that Maryland ‘caps’ non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and the distress and mental anguish of  loved ones who lose their beloved through the negligence of others.

Coming this Week: On the issue of ‘confidential settlement agreements,’ keep a lookout this week – should the public know? are they in the client’ s best interest? We’ll lay it out there for you to discuss and decide.