Each slip and fall settlement conference has its own list of priorities and agenda items. In one case, the focus may be on a dispute as to who was at fault, with each party blaming the other. The question for the settlement conference is whether the sides can agree or is a trial necessary so a jury can decide who to believe.
At another settlement conference, the factual issues of how the accident occurred may be apparent, and little doubt is left about where the negligence rests. However, a defendant willing to concede to negligence may disagree entirely with the plaintiff’s proposed damages.
For instance, the plaintiff may claim $100,000 in medical bills, other economic damages, and an additional $300,000 for pain and suffering. The defense is likely to argue that some of the monetary damages are unwarranted and that the pain and suffering component is worth a lesser amount. A settlement conference often results in the parties agreeing on damages, ending the case, and sparing expensive, time-consuming litigation.
A personal injury settlement conference often centers on one or all three key issues: 1)Factual disputes, 2)Comparative negligence disputes, and 3)Damages disputes. A judge calls a settlement conference in the hopes of mediating these and any other issues and concluding the case.
Disputing the Facts in Pennsylvania
Some slip-and-fall cases come with indisputable facts, while others result in two sides telling very different stories.
For example, someone may fall at a store due to spilled liquid. Both sides agree that the liquid was left unattended, and no warning was provided to the victim. In addition, video of the incident may show that an employee mopped the floor and left the wet area without a warning sign.
Because the factual occurrences, in this case, are clear, and the law allows for premises liability claims under these circumstances, a settlement conference is unlikely to center on disputed facts. However, the parties may be miles apart on damages.
Other cases may be difficult to settle out of court because material facts are disputed. For example, a plaintiff may bring a claim against a homeowner, alleging he tripped on a cracked concrete walkway during a party, resulting in a severe back injury. According to the plaintiff’s account, the homeowner was negligent by allowing guests to walk over a poorly maintained walkway.
However, in response to a lawsuit, the defendant may claim no crack existed in his or her walkway. The defendant may further assert that he saw the plaintiff fall, but it occurred on the street outside the property, and that plaintiff lost his or her balance due to heavy intoxication, not a poorly maintained road.
By the defense’s account, the case should be dismissed because the fall occurred off his property and was due to the plaintiff’s negligence.
Who is right?
In a case where an essential fact of the case (where the fall occurred) is in dispute, a jury is tasked with deciding who to believe. Each side presents its case, and a jury deliberates on who is most likely telling the truth by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence means the jury should find for the plaintiff if it believes the incident is more likely than not to have happened as the plaintiff claims.
At a settlement conference, each side presents evidence. The judge asks if a settlement is possible. One or both sides may want to avoid the risk of going to trial. An agreement may end the case if each side can agree on damages.
Comparative Negligence Disputes
Pennsylvania personal injury law is guided by the comparative negligence standard. This framework requires courts to decide personal injury cases based on the percentage of negligence due to each party. To collect damages, plaintiffs must be less than 51% responsible for the accident.
For example, if a jury finds a plaintiff was 60% responsible for the accident, he or she receives no award. However, if the jury finds the plaintiff was 40% responsible, he or she receives an award, but the damages are reduced by 40%.
Many cases prove difficult to settle because the sides have differing views on comparative negligence. Even if the main facts of the case seem clear, the defense may believe that the plaintiff’s contribution to causing the accident is much higher, severely reducing or eliminating any award. For instance, the defense may contend that the majority of the negligence lies with the plaintiff; therefore, no award should be given.
Obviously, the plaintiff would argue that he or she is not the majority at fault and is due an award. If no settlement can be reached, a jury would need to decide the issue of comparative negligence and any corresponding award.
This type of case may be a good candidate for a settlement conference. For example, imagine the case of a plaintiff slipping on a cracked walkway during a party, where there is no dispute the fall occurred on the defendant’s property. According to premises liability laws, it would seem the homeowner was negligent because of poor walkway maintenance.
However, the defendant may assert that he saw the plaintiff stumbling before reaching the cracked area and that his heavy intoxication contributed to his loss of balance. Therefore, it’s possible that a combination of negligence by both parties resulted in the fall.
A settlement conference would seek to resolve the issue of comparative negligence. If each side is willing to take some responsibility, then the case can likely be resolved without a trial.
A settlement conference can be especially effective when the facts of the case are clear, but the sides disagree on damages. Then, a judge may be able to review the evidence and mediate a settlement.
For instance, imagine that a supermarket customer slipped in a poorly lighted parking lot. Evidence may show that lights were not working at the time of the accident and that the lot was left in dilapidated condition, resulting in the plaintiff tripping on broken concrete.
The parties in this type of case may agree on the facts and comparative negligence. However, their view of damages may be miles apart.
Pennsylvania law allows plaintiffs to claim economic and noneconomic damages. However, the plaintiff must prove these harms were related to the accident. In a slip and fall case, some damages may be obviously related to the accident, such as the bills for the ambulance, emergency room visits, x-rays, and pain medication. But the defense may question whether other damages were accident related.
For instance, the victim injured his or her back in the fall. During the following months, debilitating back pain resulted in doctors recommending surgery. After the surgery, the plaintiff may have reported a decrease in symptoms and been able to resume most normal activities.
Upon reviewing the evidence, the defense may discover that the plaintiff, in fact, had a pre-existing back condition. Attorneys may develop evidence of their own using expert witnesses to show that the plaintiff’s pain was unlikely to have been caused by the fall. Rather, the pre-existing condition required surgery even if the accident never happened.
The plaintiff's lawyers may have their own experts who argue that the pre-existing condition was not a factor in the pain symptoms that required surgery. Instead, the fall exacerbated the problem, making the surgical intervention necessary.
This difference of opinion could cause the parties to dispute tens of thousands of dollars in damages for medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering. Without a settlement, the parties would need to present their cases to a jury. Since each has experts testifying to different conclusions, they may view leaving the determination of damages to a jury as dangerous. The plaintiff may receive nothing, or the defense may find itself responsible for a large jury verdict.
At a settlement conference, a judge may be able to broker an agreement that compensates the plaintiff without requiring the defense to pay an amount it considers exorbitant.
How Does Slip and Fall Settlement Conference Differ From Arbitration in Pennsylvania?
Arbitrations are legal proceedings where a professional arbitrator decides cases outside of court. The arbitrator's ruling is binding. This means that the decision, in most cases, is final.
Losing parties can appeal to civil court but not simply because they disagree with the arbitrator's decision. They must be able to demonstrate that the arbitration was inherently unfair or flawed. Participants cannot appeal on the basis that the arbitrator made the wrong decision based on which party he believed.
Settlement conferences are nonbinding and the judge has no power to compel participants to accept a proposed solution. Instead, they are more like mediations. The judge listens to the facts and attempts to get the sides to come to terms; however, if they do not, then the case proceeds to trial, where a jury decides the case.
Arbitration is only required if both sides have an arbitration agreement that was in force before the incident occurred. In most slip and fall injury cases, no arbitration agreement exists between the parties.
Settlement conferences can be enormously productive in terms of avoiding long trials and appeals processes. Many slip and fall cases settle during a conference because differences in fact patterns, comparative negligence, and damages can be mediated. However, when the sides remain too far apart on damages or fundamentally disagree about what happened, a jury trial may be the only way to resolve the case.
Call Us to Speak with a Slip and Fall Settlement Lawyer in Pennsylvania
Mattiacci Law’s slip and fall accident pros have seen many cases where clients suffered severe injuries because of the negligence of a property owner or business. We understand how to build an airtight case and force insurance companies to settle for the real amount of damages. For a free consultation about your slip and fall injury case, contact Mattiacci Law.
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