It is not always the case that civil claims make it to the courthouse and are decided through trial there are alternatives. The most common of which is a legal settlement, or where a case is “settled out of court.” This is a popular phrase that can be heard or read on an almost daily basis, but not everyone is a legal scholar and understands the process of settling a civil claim out of court. Thus, your Charleston medical malpractice lawyers have decided to dedicate this entry to giving a brief and basic lesson on settlements as they pertain to civil lawsuits. Hopefully a couple of recently decided cases will provide good examples to the settlement process, as well as show the pros and cons for both plaintiffs and defendants in the decision of whether or not to settle a case out of court.
Much like litigation, settlement is a process, and while the easiest time to settle a dispute if before litigation begins, attorneys from both parties are communicating with each other and the court as litigation moves forward, gauging the relative strength of their cases and determining if settling out of court is in the best interest of the claim.
Typically, a settlement occurs when the defendant in a civil suit agrees to some, or all, of the plaintiffs claims and decides not to argue the matter in front of a judge and jury in court. An agreement by the plaintiff and the defendant to a settlement ends the litigation, and the defendant avoids the financial cost of litigating the case in court. And the cost of pursuing litigation through trial is often extremely expensive because of the amount of time required by attorneys. This week in Charleston, it was not only the cost of trial that burned a hole in the County’s pocket, but also the verdict. Last month the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office denied a $10,000 offer to settle a malicious prosecution claim, and after seeing the case through trial, the wrongfully arrested plaintiff was awarded $50,000. By declining the original offer, it seems the defense (Sheriff’s Office) felt the plaintiff’s had a weak claim, but an incorrect perception of the other side’s case cost taxpayers $40,000.
However, the cost of litigating a case in court is only one of the factors that encourage settlement. In general, litigation is unpleasant, the pretrial process of discovery, in which both sides solicit information pertaining to the case from each other, can cause embarrassment because considerable personal and financial information must be released. Additionally, litigation can have a malign impact on the reputation of the parties involved. A defendant may settle a claim in order to simply avoid unwanted media attention concerning the case. In retrospect, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office undoubtedly wishes they have accepted the settlement offer and passed on taking the aforementioned malicious prosecution claim to trial, as they have caught some heat from local news sources and disgruntled tax payers.
Many times, the exact terms of settlements are not disclosed publicly, especially in high-profile cases where the defendant is seeking to save face and protect their public reputation. Also, more often than not, settlements in high-profile cases are immediately followed by the release of a statement from the defendant saying they did nothing wrong. For example, recently a medical malpractice lawsuit concerning the wrongful death of a 53-year-old Kentucky woman was settled for $2.1 million, following the verdict the U.S. Attorney defending the suit against Blanchfield Army Community Hospital stated, “the settlement is not an admission of liability or fault.”
Your South Carolina personal injury lawyers at Howell and Christmas hope this entry provided some solid insight into civil lawsuits and the nature of settlements.