If you haven’t been following, Victoria Pynchon at the Settle It Now Negotiation Blog and I have been having a running discussion about The Settlement Unicorn, which I originally defined as follows:

I’ve heard of a mythical beast, which I’ll call The Unicorn Settlement, where two hostile parties on the verge of a lawsuit get lawyers, almost file suit, and then, through deft representation, settle their differences peacefully and move on.

Let me exclude from The Unicorn a particular class of dispute, where two businesses with an ongoing relationship have a big dispute. I exclude that because, while I’ve seen many such disputes resolved pre-litigation, it has always been in the context of an ongoing relationship the value of which exceeds the value of the dispute. So I don’t call that a "settlement of a case," I call it a "continuation of a business relationship."

Victoria most recently gave an example in a medical malpractice case, which caused me to move the goal posts:

Thus, when the parties agreed to mediate, there was likely $40-60,000 "on the table," which could either be used to help settle the case or could be thrown away on experts. As noted above, that sum alone — putting aside attorneys’ fees and all the other costs and issues — likely represented between one quarter and one half of the eventual settlement value, and the lawyers, whom I am guessing were experienced in medical malpractice, both deserve credit for recognizing this economic waste.

But that’s why I just can’t verify this as an actual sighting of the mighty unicorn. To me, it’s analytically similar to my initial example of two businesses who resolve their dispute not because they really reach an agreement, but because the cost of the dispute is less than the value of their continuing relationship. The equation above doesn’t work in a wrongful death or birth injury case. It frequently doesn’t apply in cases worth more than $250,000 and virtually never applies to cases worth more than $500,000.

So Victoria commented:

On to the main point, isn’t there ALWAYS some "external" factor that brings litigating parties to the table?

Which external factors do you want to rule out for our poor unicorn?

I deftly didn’t answer for several days [sorry, Vickie]. Let me clarify: my biggest issue with her example was my suspicion that the final settlement didn’t substantially exceed the cost of continued litigation. As such, it doesn’t really look like a genuine desire to settle, it looks like a cost-avoidance measure with a little bit of personal understanding (the scar) involved.

That’s all well and good, and covers a lot of cases, but it’s not what I’m looking for and what I think needs more consideration. What I’m looking for is a settlement reached, for substantial money, because the lawyers sat down, considered the case, and came to an agreement on its value.

The frustratingly inefficient process that nags at me is this: after my investigation of a case, I have a good idea of three different numbers:

  1. the highest reasonable verdict value of the case;
  2. the likely settlement / verdict value;
  3. the lowest reasonable successful resolution.

Unspoken there is #4, a defense verdict / abandoning the case, which I guess you could say is a consideration, except that, given how I’m largely in the business of contingent fee cases, I’m not in the business of taking cases I think can’t win. It’s always a concern, but not for settlement: if I settle a case, I settle it at a "win" amount. Otherwise I go for #1 and don’t look back.

Here’s the frustrating part. Every insurer is different, as is every defense attorney, and certainly every defendant, and there are disincentives for all of them (respectively bureaucratic, financial, and emotional disincentives) not to settle early. And even though I’ve done defense work, I know I just don’t get how this adjuster works, how this case is evaluated, how my client is lying, blah, blah blah.

But at some point the adjuster, lawyer and/or client will start throwing numbers around in their head. At least along the lawyers, the #2 numbers usually aren’t that far apart, and will be within half (plus or minus) of what a judge / mediator would put on it for settlement purposes.

Time after time, I litigate a case for months / years, for which I’ve known #2, and after all that time and money, no one knows any more than when they started. Some defense lawyers will, after the close of discovery, start talking settlement. Others refuse to discuss until jury selection.

Now, in some circumstances, such litigation is inevitable. Take a birth injury (hypoxia) / medical malpractice case. The potential damages are enormous, and heavily dependent upon developmental / life care / economic assumptions. There’s always a thrombophilia defense, there’s always some Chair-of-Whatever who can describe how a fetal strip says the opposite of what it actually does. So we’ll need to litigate, depose the doctors, find the experts, wave to the insurance surveillance, and get the whole thing ready for trial before appropriate numbers are offered.

On others, it’s just plain silly. Here’s a hypothetical: industrial product failed, 54yo male client spent 16 days in the hospital, lost $80,000 in wages while recovering in physical therapy for months, now earns $15,000 less per year at a crummier job, has a recurring severe pain in legs, and can’t engage in normal physical recreation anymore. He’ll need continuing care plus a couple surgeries.

There are thousands of cases like that every year, more than enough to get a contemporary sense of "what they’re worth."

Months of discovery will create dozens of copies of his medical records, find out he had three workplace safety violations in the past 15 years (none related to the machine), and reveal the company has had two other incidents with this same product, but no smoking guns.

Just before trial, we’re exactly where we started, except the insurance company is poorer $50,000-$150,000 in legal fees and experts, I’ve put out $20,000-50,000 in costs and experts, and my client has gone more than a year since filing suit living off loans from family to pay off the massive credit card debt and home equity loans they took on immediately after the accident.

Why did we mess around all that time? The defense lawyers would have known proving liability wouldn’t be that hard for me, and that neither me nor my firm ever shows up to trial unprepared. All of their discovery was, at best, a half-hearted fishing expedition. The bulk of what they did was force me to "prove" things that should have been beyond any genuine dispute. Why couldn’t we get this done sooner?

Victoria, do you have any examples of two parties sitting down, before largely completing litigation, and wrapping up a case for substantially more than nuisance / cost of suit? If so, what brought them to the table?