Medical malpractice cases can either be resolved through a settlement or by going to trial. Both routes have implications for the involved parties, including financial costs, time, emotional stress, and potential outcomes – some more significant than others.

This article is about the primary differences in pursuing a settlement versus proceeding toward a courtroom trial. We will explore the basics of settling through negotiation, mediation, or arbitration and will highlight the pros and cons of each path to resolution, the expected cost differences, and the timeline considerations.

In your own particular case, you must discuss this decision thoroughly and consider the advice of your attorney.

Understanding Settlements and Trials

Malpractice Settlements

A settlement is an agreement reached between the plaintiff (the patient or patient’s family) and the defendant (the healthcare provider or institution). Most of the time, this would be reached without going to trial, but there can also be settlements that occur during or after trial. This agreement typically involves the defendant agreeing to pay a sum of money to the plaintiff in exchange for the plaintiff dropping the lawsuit. Sometimes this is achieved through a lawyer letter, without the need to actually file or serve a lawsuit. Often, it is a lengthy process involving many negotiations between the parties, but once settled, the matter is definitively over. Because it is an agreement, settlements cannot be forced upon either side. If one side is not interested in settling, or is not interested in settling for an amount the other side is willing to accept or offer, the case cannot be settled.

Malpractice Trials

A trial involves presenting the case in court before a judge and possibly a jury. Both sides present their evidence and arguments, and the outcome is determined by the judge or jury. If the plaintiff wins, the court awards damages, which the defendant is legally obligated to pay. If the case is decided by a jury or judge, there is a possibility of appeal, adding to the cost and timeline of the overall case.

Pros and Cons of Settlement

Settlement Pros

  1. Faster Resolution: Settlements can be reached relatively quickly, typically within 6 to 18 months, compared to the time-consuming process of going to trial.
  2. Certainty: Settling provides a guaranteed outcome, whereas a trial’s outcome is uncertain and can be unfavorable.
  3. Lower Costs: The cost is lower since the process is shorter and less complex. Your attorney may be able to avoid spending money on expert witnesses and other expenses need to prove a case in court.
  4. Privacy: Settlements can be kept confidential, protecting the privacy of both parties.
  5. Emotional Relief: Avoiding the adversarial nature of a trial can reduce emotional stress for all parties involved.

Settlement Cons

  1. Potentially Lower Compensation: Settlements might result in lower compensation than what could be awarded by a jury. The defendant will almost never pay their “worst day in court” outcome.
  2. No Admission of Fault: Defendants often do not admit to any wrongdoing in settlements, which can be unsatisfying for plaintiffs seeking acknowledgment of harm.
  3. Negotiation Challenges: Reaching an agreeable settlement can be difficult, especially if the parties have vastly different views on the case’s value.

Pros and Cons of Trial

Trial Pros

  1. Potential for Higher Compensation: Successful trials often result in higher compensation, as juries may award significant damages for pain and suffering, etc.
  2. Public Vindication: A trial can publicly hold the defendant accountable, providing a sense of justice and closure for the plaintiff.
  3. Precedent Setting: Trials can set legal precedents that may benefit other similar cases in the future.

Trial Cons

  1. High Costs: Trials involve extensive expert witness fees, and other court-related expenses. These are higher due to the lengthy and complex nature of trials, including preparation, court appearances, and extensive documentation.
  2. Time-Consuming: Trials can take months or even years to conclude, often taking 2-3 years or more, prolonging the resolution process. Appeals add to this timeline.
  3. Emotional Strain: The adversarial nature of trials can be emotionally taxing for both plaintiffs and their witnesses.
  4. Uncertain Outcome: The outcome of a trial is uncertain and can be unfavorable, potentially resulting in no compensation for the plaintiff.

Timeline Differences in Settling vs. Going to Trial

Settlement Timeline for Malpractice Cases

Settlements are generally faster, typically resolved within 18 to 24 months. The process involves an initial investigation, filing a complaint, and engaging in negotiations to reach an agreement. This shorter timeframe is due to the absence of extensive court procedures and hopefully, a mutual interest in avoiding prolonged legal battles. The certainty and speed of settlements often make them a preferred option for both plaintiffs and defendants seeking a swift resolution. If this is not possible, a trial may be necessary.

Trial Timeline for Malpractice Cases

In contrast, trials can be much lengthier, often taking 2 to 3 years or more, longer if appeals are involved. The trial process includes several stages in addition to that involved in settlements: discovery, pre-trial motions, trial preparation, and the trial itself, followed by potential post-trial motions and appeals. Each of these stages can add months or years to the overall timeline, making the trial route considerably more time-consuming. This extended duration can increase the emotional and financial strain on both parties, as they must invest significant time and resources into the litigation process.

Deciding Between Settlement and Trial

The decision to settle or go to trial in a medical malpractice case is complex and involves careful consideration of various factors, including potential compensation, costs, time, and emotional impact. Settlements offer quicker, less expensive, and more certain resolutions but may result in lower compensation and lack a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Trials, while potentially more rewarding financially also come with higher costs, longer timelines, and significant uncertainty about the outcome. Plaintiffs must weigh these pros and cons with the guidance of experienced legal counsel to determine the best course of action for their specific circumstances.

At Wallace Wason, PLLC, we are committed to helping you navigate these choices to achieve the best possible outcome for your case. If you have been injured in a malpractice case, contact us for a free case evaluation at (703) 638-7717.

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