Creative path to resolution: money not the only way to settle lawsuits

Money not the only path to settlementIt’s been a tough month for the American legal system and American lawyers.

First an attorney with drug-resistant TB travels to Europe and back, potentially exposing his fellow air travelers to a dreaded illness. Then an administrative law judge goes to court to recover $54 million dollars from his former dry cleaner over a pair of lost trousers. Finally, a North Carolina district attorney is disbarred for violating numerous rules of professional conduct in his prosecution of a controversial rape case.

Events like this only seem to confirm the worst suspicions that the American public harbors toward its legal system and the legal profession. The images on the five o’clock news tell the story: greedy plaintiffs, overreaching lawyers, justice in chaos.

This month’s issue of the American Association for Justice’s Law Reporter paints another picture. In a print article, “Family of slain journalist agrees to nonmonetary settlement with city to improve emergency services, ” it reports on the unexpected outcome of a lawsuit stemming from the death of a prominent journalist as the result of alleged deficiencies in the District of Columbia’s emergency services.

According to the family’s lawyer, their goals in litigation shifted from obtaining monetary compensation from the defendants to instead finding ways to ensure that other families would be spared a similar experience. In exchange for the family members dismissing their claims against the District, the District agreed to establish a task force to investigate the circumstances surrounding the response of the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Service and to issue a report of recommendations for improving the delivery of emergency medical services.

The family’s attorney observed, “I hope that the example set by the Rosenbaum family will prompt other attorneys to consider creative resolutions to cases where the focus shift from an entirely monetary settlement to a resolution that has a broader impact than just on the litigants in the case.”

Mediators of course will nod their heads in recognition–this is a story familiar to all of us. It’s too bad it’s not a story familiar to the public. Lawyers and mediators alike need to do a better job of telling these stories–stories which reveal the creativity and change that justice can produce.

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