'Tis the season for settling

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Hundreds of lawyers and their clients have taken over the 4th floor of the Frank Licht Judicial Complex this week, looking to make deals and wrap up cases. They're taking part in what's known as Settlement Week, the state Superior Court's attempt to clear civil cases from the docket.

Back in the early 90's Rhode Island Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney was talking with an attorney when the idea hit: what if they blocked an entire week to settle as many cases as possible.

They'd do it at the end of the year when it's slow, and the perfect time to get people to settle.

"Because plaintiffs wanted to get money for the holidays and claims people, insurance companies wanted to close their files for the year," says Gibney.

So she cleared a week on the calendar, talked 60 attorneys into mediating pro-bono, and let the state bar associations know the 4th floor was open for settlements.

"We do all sorts of cases, we do personal injuries, dog bites, slips and falls, malpractice, contracts, commercial cases, we've done tax appeals, we've done wrongful death cases. They run the gambit," says Gibney.

For the last 17 years, she says there are always at least two dog bite cases. Associate Superior Court Judge Dan Procaccini says they've mediated a few of those again this year.

"We have, we have, we've taken a bite out of a couple of insurance companies, I'd say."

Procaccini's monitoring the hall not far from a table stocked with coffee and cookies. In chairs along the wall, people wait their turn as lawyers huddle in groups.

Down at the other end of the hall, mediator John Foley preps for his next case. It's a busy day.

"I've got six cases. In a way I kind of liken it to speed dating because you only have one hour per case," Foley says. "Some personal injury cases involving auto accidents. I have one case involving a slip at the Providence Place Mall on some spilled ice cream, I have a property dispute, so all kinds of cases."

That property dispute is up next. It involves a couple who built a house with a curved driveway. Turns out, the driveway is on the neighbor's property.

"The architect is being sued, the builder's being sued and they're all trying to sort the fallout from this mess," says Foley.

Foley's job is to get the couple to strike a deal with the architect's attorney, the homebuilder's attorney and the homebuilder's insurance company's attorney. The couple says they didn't know the driveway was on their neighbor's property until they sold the house. The homebuilder's lawyer disagrees.

The case has gone on for years. The couple has spent $250,000 on legal fees and they want compensation.

Foley teases out the details, not to decide innocence or guilt, but to find points of leverage in the negotiations.

The couple starts the process with a $100,000 figure the homebuilder's attorney counters with $15,000. And on it goes.

This case is coming to trial soon and Foley tells both sides the risk of leaving it up to a jury. Judge Procaccini says before the economy tanked, people were willing to go to trial.

"Now if there's a reasonable offer on the table I think parties are more apt to look at that," Procaccini says.

Foley gave his property case an hour and half to find a number they could shake on, but so far, no such luck.

"It's going to keep going because they're out in the hall, and I'm going to start my next case and ask them to keep talking and juggle back and forth." says Foley.

This case failed to settle.

But of the six cases on his docket, Foley resolved four. He'll take those odds. And so will everyone else involved who may end up resolving 60 percent of the more than 200 cases that took part in this year's settlement week.

Settlement Week By The Numbers
Number of Cases Mediated in 1993 = 1,200
Number of Cases Mediated in 2010 = 220
Total Number of Cases Mediated = 5,774
Total Number of Cases Settled = 3,876
Source: Presiding Superior Court Justice Alice Gibney

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