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A Real Life Lesson Why It’s Almost Always Better To Settle

LaQuan Tremell Taylor’s injuries were horrific. The 27-year-old veteran, was robbed, carjacked, and shot in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store in Atlanta, Georgia. After three weeks in a coma, roughly a year in the hospital, multiple surgeries, and millions of dollars of treatment, plaintiff’s spinal cord injury left him a partial paraplegic with scars over his entire body and continuing pain. Kroger was the primary defendant in his suit for the store’s negligent failure to maintain adequate security.
Kroger’s insurance stacked thusly:
$3,000,000 self-insured retention (SIR)
$2,000,00 ACE American Insurance Company.
$25,000,000 Starr Surplus Lines Insurance Company
$25,000,000 Great American Insurance Company Of New York
Excess above Great American: XL Insurance America and Chubb Group of Insurance CompaniesPlaintiff’s pre-trial demands were within Starr’s coverage limit. But Starr refused to settle. The final judgment exceeded 61 million dollars. It appears that Starr did not attempt to mediate a settlement until after judgment was enteredNotwithstanding its ill-advised choice, Starr refused to pay more than its policy limit to satisfy the judgment. Great American settled the case and on February 11, 2021 sued Starr for reimbursement. The complaint for declaratory judgment alleges that Starr had acted in bad faith and was “stubbornly litigious.” Great American has asked for reimbursement of its settlement contribution plus attorney fees and expenses.

I see many cases that, like the Taylor case, clearly have the potential to “blow up.” Cases settle when parties are willing to spend the necessary time in good faith mediation and make reasonable settlement proposals. When parties are “stubbornly litigious”, the results can be disastrous.

And Then There’s . . .
In workers compensation cases, being “stubbornly litigious” can mean denying requested medical treatment. Often, though, alternative treatments end up being more expensive in the long run. Patients who cannot get treatment through the usual process sometimes end up in emergency rooms, incurring a much larger bill.
 

Authorizing a quick, “expensive” treatment can lead to early claim closure and a less costly claim overall. Sometimes the injured worker ends up undergoing the procedure which was originally requested anyway. And don’t forget the administrative expenses of utilization and bill review.Patients aren’t doctors. Patients are not writing the Requests for Authorization. Almost every patient will prefer conservative treatment to life-threatening surgery. Sure, there are malingerers and patients who exaggerate their pain in the hope of scoring heavy-duty medication or just gaining attention. And, yes, some doctors overtreat to increase their fees. Independent doctors, claims personnel, and defense attorneys have heightened their awareness of those patterns.

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Like Starr Surplus Insurance, a “stubbornly litigious” stance can end up costing you more in the end.

Are You Serious?

The #1 predictor of mediation success is whether the participants have come with a seriousness of purpose. They understand that mediation is their best chance to avoid delay and expense, not to mention a bad result. They have readied themselves to settle the case.

Why Are You Here?
Sure, the court may have ordered the parties to mediation. Look at this as a blessing. You might have struggled to get your opponent to the negotiating table. Now the court has done this for you. Moreover, instead of having to deal with insincere posturing, the mediator can filter communications to get to the crux of the dispute.The participant who only comes to mediation because “opposing counsel wanted to do this” is throwing away an opportunity and dishonoring the client.Have You Prepared?
Mediation helps parties resolve disputes efficiently. Yet, both attorneys and their clients often show up for mediation completely unprepared. Being prepared doesn’t just mean knowing the facts and law of your case, though some mediation participants even disdain this basic step.

Before coming to mediation, double-check whether you have followed the mediator’s pre-mediation instructions and requirements. This is doubly important in an era of remote video mediation.

Evaluation is Key
Take the time to thoroughly evaluate your case. Don’t think you can come in with an extreme number and wing it. Be prepared to explain your proposal, including why it is reasonable. What calculations were involved? Have you researched similar issues online so you can show how those precedents apply or are different?

The next step is to educate the client about that evaluation and plan your negotiation. Make sure you know who can grant settlement authority and line it up in advance of the mediation. The ultimate checkwriter should attend the mediation.

Come to mediation ready to settle, and chances are high you will.

Remote Mediation with Non-English Speakers

You’re ready for your remote video mediation. Everyone has the latest version of the technology and knows how to join. You rehearsed with your client; maybe you did a practice session with the mediator. You submitted the mediation confidentiality form and contact form. Now you can concentrate on the facts and the law.

Wait–What about the Interpreter?
At the beginning of every remote mediation, I confirm that everyone present has signed off on the confidentiality agreement. Yet, sometimes, against all the rules, someone else is there. Often, it’s a family member who is “just there to interpret.”

It’s inconvenient, but perhaps not a major issue. Just as would happen with an in-person mediation, someone who does have a role in the mediation can execute the confidentiality acknowledgement at the last minute. But some family members refuse documented participation in any court proceeding. Sometimes the party lacks the technology to return a signed document immediately.

Usually, the attorney can interpret for the client. Of course, the attorney is bound by confidentiality rules, but this arrangement often omits a few steps.

Get the Client What the Client Needs
An English language confidentiality agreement executed by a party who clearly needs an interpreter raises questions. Did the client sign a document without understanding it? If the attorney or a family member interpreted, that should be documented within the agreement. The person who interpreted should be a signatory, e.g.,

I translated this document and read it to Plaintiff in Spanish:___________________________________

The Settlement Agreement
Attorneys on both sides of the conflict should be concerned about the validity of an English-language settlement agreement when one or more signatories are not fluent in English. Nobody wants to be in in court after the fact because someone is contesting the agreement. The document should be read to the non-English speaker, and the interpreter needs to disclose and sign off on the settlement document. Ideally, lawyers will also provide a written translation of the document. Google Translate can create it quickly, but not necessarily with 100% accuracy.

The ultimate protection is to bring in a certified court interpreter by video or telephone and at the time of signing the settlement document.

Translating to Everyday English

You may think all the mediation participants are speaking English, but you have failed to realize that at least some of you are speaking a foreign language. The most common foreign language used in mediation is Lawyer, and Adjuster is also common. In some mediations, everyone except the claimant is speaking Insurance, but no one has thought to provide a translation.

While the professionals in the room are speaking one of these languages, the clients are often mystified, simply trusting that their counsel is looking out for them. Sometimes, though, a client’s inability to understand becomes apparent near the end of the day.

I have heard of mediations where, when it was all over, the client asked, “What just happened?” In one of my mediations, as the attorneys were finalizing the details of the settlement, the claimant asked me how a particular issue was being resolved—an issue that hadn’t been addressed at all. I had to make sure the attorneys addressed this concern with the claimant and each other.

Professionals who use jargon regularly can easily forget that people outside their closed community don’t understand what the professionals are talking about. Just as you would provide an interpreter to translate an international language, make sure everyone understands what is being said in the languages of Lawyer, Adjuster or Insurance.

Happy Mediation Holidays

A MEDIATION CAROL
Sung to the tune of Jingle Bells
Mediate, Mediate
Mediate all day
Oh, what fun it is to see
The disputes go away
HeyMediate, Mediate
Make nice, it’s Christmas time
Or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa time
Remember this smart rhyme
Hey

Mediate, Mediate,
A way to bring folks peace
Your settlement agreement
Will be a masterpiece

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

The Smartest Thing to Do in Mediation

W-A-I-T: these four letters remind you to ask yourself Why Am I Talking? Silence is often your most effective negotiation technique.
 

Silence has two big benefits
The first benefit of silence is to be better able to respond. Too many people come to mediation with their attitudes so entrenched that they don’t listen. You cannot successfully respond if you have not listened—really listened—to the opposing party.

Do not multi-task. During a remote mediation on your laptop, no one may be able to see you scrolling on your phone. But you are cheating yourself of the opportunity to collect information to help you conclude the case. You can miss something important if you’re not paying attention.

Lose the condescension. If you come to mediation with the attitude that your side is righteous and the other side’s views are valueless so you don’t have to pay attention to them, the initial obstacle to reaching settlement is yourself.

The second benefit is that if you just stay quiet, the other party may rattle off information to fill the silence void that damages their own case.

Listen First

Lawyers in particular are prone to thinking about what to say next instead of taking heed of what’s happening in the moment. It’s why they can miss asking the follow-up question a deponent’s answer should have prompted. And it’s why they ignore signals that would help them settle their case.

As your mediator, my job is to recognize those missed signals and follow up with the participants to facilitate settlement.

Remote Mediation Ethics

The COVID-19 pandemic has made many things about our jobs more difficult. And yet, there is a silver lining when it comes to case resolution.
 

The inability to safely congregate has compelled lawyers and claims professionals to turn to video mediation. Some were surprised to learn the benefits. Among these are that people are more relaxed in familiar environments; they feel more in control. Less stress results in better negotiation.

Pre-pandemic, the real decision makers often did not actively participate, instructing the attorneys, “Call me if something important happens.” These people missed getting the full picture. Now, there is no barrier (or excuse!) for parties who may be hundreds of miles away to actively participate. Again, the result is a better negotiation.

Lawyers must not shun mediating via remote technologies like Zoom. On the contrary, they have an ethical duty to master the technology. California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 imposes a duty of competence, which includes the learning and skill reasonably necessary to provide legal services. The rule specifies that if you don’t already have that learning and skill, go out and get it or hand the case off to someone who does. State Bar of California’s Formal Opinion 2015-193 addressed the question of technology competence in a case involving e-discovery. The opinion states: “An attorney’s obligations under the ethical duty of competence evolve as new technologies develop and become integrated with the practice of law.”

Of course, you will want to choose a mediator who is comfortable with remote mediation technology. One way for you to get comfortable with it is to ask that mediator for a free practice session.

Align Thoughts, Words & Deeds to Get Results

Having trouble concentrating? Affected by shelter-in-place orders to contain the COVID-19, overlaid with curfews activated by civil unrest following the death of George Floyd? Join the club.

For some cases, nothing is urgent right now. It’s easy to leave those cases on autopilot.

What you focus on is what you get. If what you really want is to avoid the expense and stress that go with delaying case resolution, you need to align these:

Thoughts: Concentrate on one, just one, file and put together an action plan in your mind specifically what you can do right now to bring it to resolution. That may well be mediation. Do you really need that pending deposition when everyone knows pretty much what that witness will say? How about trying to resolve the case now without it?

Words: Document the plan, and communicate it to everyone needed to effect it. Tell your lawyer what you want to happen next. Contact opposing counsel to explain your plan. Set deadlines.

Deeds: Don’t slip back to inaction. Too many so-called action plans are never implemented. Calendar a follow-up date to make sure your plan is moving forward.

People prone to procrastination find that forcing themselves to action on one matter prompts them to tackle another and another. Taking ownership of a situation is challenging. It takes courage. It’s the way to get the result you want.

The Role of Empathy in Settlement

Empathy, the ability to see a situation from a different point of view, is an important negotiation and advocacy skill. You must be able to anticipate and understand your opponent’s position to effectively counter it. Debate trainers assign students to argue the position opposite their personal beliefs to foster this skill.
I’m Fine. To Hell With You
Lately we have seen a stunning lack of empathy in our country. On the same day as a county announced that COVID-19 had become the county’s leading cause of death, one resident yelled, “It’s my body and I want to go to work.” Another defiantly asked, “Why shouldn’t I be able to sit in a restaurant and eat?”

The answer is that many people, perhaps the majority, who are infected with the virus are asymptomatic. COVID-19, unlike collisions, drownings, obesity, heart disease, and cancer, is wildly contagious. There is currently no vaccine and no cure. More than 81,000 Americans have died. Around the world, people are not allowed to work in close quarters or sit in a restaurant because that potentially exposes coworkers, servers and other customers to the contagion. Not everyone reacts to the virus the same way.

Similarly, the television journalist who tweeted that anyone who wants to continue to shelter in place should just stay home lacks any awareness of how most people live. If the boss requires workers to show up or lose their jobs, those workers don’t have the luxury of working from home. There are more people living paycheck-to-paycheck to pay the rent and buy groceries than people pulling in big bucks.

And then there’s the 79-year-old Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice who said “regular folks” were not getting COVID-19. Got that, anyone with a family member in a nursing home?

Negotiators need not have suffered a serious injury or business reversal themselves to empathize with someone who has. Perhaps you have had a personal experience which makes you wonder why your negotiating opponent is apparently so much less resilient that you. Again, not everyone reacts to an event the same way. An inability to concede that these are that person’s feelings, even if you think they are baseless, impedes meaningful settlement discussions.

Why Video Mediations Are Like Early Personal Computers

You may have heard the abbreviation RTFM. As soon as everyday consumers started using computers, telephone customer support staff had to field daily questions about the most basic functions. Perhaps the most infamous is about the user who insisted that a floppy disk drive (remember those?) was a cup-holder. What the tech people wanted to yell was, “READ THE F-ING MANUAL!” 

Read the Mediation Instructions
I send instructions to participants in every one of my mediations. Over time, these instructions have gotten so specific that they even include directions on what topics to include in the mediation brief.

For better or worse, I am no longer disheartened when it is painfully obvious parties have paid no attention to the instructions. We simply carry on.

Instructions for Video Mediations
Shelter-in-Place orders have drastically increased the use of video platforms for remote mediation. It’s really important to prepare for video mediation by READING THE INSTRUCTIONS. These include information about:

  • How to sign in
  • Acceptable remote locations
  • WiFi requirements
  • Device requirements
  • What happens if a computer goes down

Unlike with in-person mediations, failure to read video mediation instructions can prevent the mediation from going forward.

Courts may be closed, but the disputes go on. You can get those disputes resolved during a shutdown with video mediation.

Mediator As Filter

There’s a lot of interest lately in filtering out bad stuff. Of course, we use filters all the time: air filters in the ceilings in our houses, filters to keep the coffee grounds out of our drinks, water filters to improve the stuff that comes from our faucets, filtered cigarettes— well, you get the idea.

Think about this. Your negotiations aren’t leading to resolution because of the absence of a filter. A big part of what a mediator does is filter messages between disputing parties.

Self-Filters Don’t Lead to Resolution
Negotiators shape their message to achieve their goal. They might threaten. They might withhold critical information. Negotiators seldom admit the flaws in their position; they’ve filtered those out to make their case look as strong as possible.

In mediation, parties have the opportunity to let their guard down. One of the most powerful features of mediation is caucusing. In caucus, only one side meets with the mediator. By statute, everything that is said is confidential. The mediator cannot disclose anything unless you authorize that disclosure. She cannot be subpoenaed.

Confidentiality promotes candor. Parties can stop filtering their message and discuss the good and bad points of the case with the mediator. Here’s your chance to discuss the case with a professional neutral who can help parties identify the issues and resolve them.

Reframing
Mediating parties make demands and offers, and the mediator conveys them to the opponent. Part of this process often includes the mediator reframing the message to filter out animosity or extraneous issues. The mediator is using her own filters to enhance the likelihood of settlement. This focuses the parties’ attention on what is important for settling the case.

Posturing
Even in caucus, some attorneys will grandstand in an attempt to assure the client of their support, no matter how unreasonable the client’s position.  An experienced mediator understands the dynamic and how to use it to resolve the case.

Maybe you think your opponent is the biggest jerk in the world. In mediation, the mediator can filter out that attitude to get your case settled.