This article’s by Joel Farar, a top rating San Francisco personal injury lawyer. If you are involved in a lawsuit either as plaintiff or defendant, your attorney has probably informed you of the legal steps leading to resolution of the dispute. Initially, a Complaint is filed to obtain what is known as relief from a problem allegedly caused by someone else. This process addresses many kinds of issues, from divorce to personal injury. After the Complaint is filed, the defendant will file an Answer through his or her attorney. Then the discovery phase begins, during which the defending attorney will research and investigate all aspects of the plaintiff and claim to determine the value, if any, of the lawsuit, or to seek ways of discrediting it.
Along the course of these actions, a settlement offer may be extended by the offending party, either to admit culpability or to terminate the legal process without necessarily admitting guilt. If the settlement offer is unacceptable, both parties proceed to a court trial, which may be time-intensive and costly.
In recent years the legal system has begun implementing an alternate option known as a settlement conference. This may be ordered by the presiding judge or requested by either attorney, and it usually follows the discovery phase. A settlement conference is recommended to try and resolve the matter before going to court, as well as eliminate stress for the parties involved. It also helps to reduce pressure on a crowded court schedule.
Waiting for a court trial can sometimes take a year or two, depending on the type of case and location. For example, a big city court schedule is typically busier than one in a small town. No one wants to wait months or years to solve a conflict. Being able to schedule a settlement conference before a court date makes it a feasible option.
Instead of gathering witnesses and hiring experts for a courtroom trial, a settlement conference is more informal and speedier. The plaintiff and defendants, with their respective attorneys, meet with a mediator in a conference room, usually at the courthouse. After a brief statement of the complaint and response by the attorneys, the parties separate. The plaintiff and attorney are assigned to one room, while the defendant and attorney go to another nearby room. Often, the insurance adjuster involved in personal injury cases will accompany the attorney for the defendant, who in such cases may not be present. The mediator goes between the parties to leverage an acceptable settlement offer. Although the process can last most of the day, many conferences are resolved within an hour or two. Some cannot be resolved in this manner, and they will proceed to trial at a future date. Settlement terms, if agreed on, should be made in writing for confirmation. If compensation is involved, it is finalized, along with settlement documents, within a few weeks.
A settlement conference does not have the same type of expenses a trial would require. While there is a settlement fee, it is usually a few hundred dollars. A court trial, on the other hand, might require expert witnesses, which often cost a few thousand dollars each for depositions and court testimony. Although a settlement conference sometimes results in less-than-expected compensation, the lower settlement amount may balance evenly against the additional expenses possibly incurred by a trial.
For many people, putting the legal issue behind them is worth the reduced compensation they accept during a settlement conference. Going to trial is stressful and time-consuming, and a jury or judge verdict is unpredictable. Resolving the complaint as quickly and painlessly as possible is beneficial to all involved and relieves pressure on the over-burdened court system.