Set The Expectation: Trial Awards & Settlements By Julieta Smith*

*Case Law Ltd. Extern and Southern University Law Student, Class of 2023

“I’m rich!” Those words are exclaimed by many casino slot machine players as their slot machine’s lights flash and bells ring, alerting them of thousands or millions won.  Similar thoughts flood the minds of clients during their initial consultations with an attorney.  However, the reality of a million-dollar settlement is sometimes elusive, leaving the client bewildered because he has seen million-dollar awards for others in perceived similar situations.  The misconception regarding court awards brings to mind a friend who felt disheartened with the settlement of her case.

“During an employee meeting, my supervisor reached underneath my work apron and his hand brushed against my breast.  He said he was adjusting my nametag,” said Angel**.  “I was so embarrassed that I wet myself.  I filed a complaint with human resources.  I was terminated shortly thereafter,” she said.  My friend was employed at a hospital and her story of assault, wrongful termination, and violation of her civil rights was baffling to both of us because it occurred at a medical facility and in front of others.  Angel was certain she had a million-dollar case.  In fact, she convinced herself that $800,000 was the least she would receive for settlement.  However, her case settled between $50,000 and $90,000.  Similarly, many clients calculate large figures because of a lack of information and not understanding how attorneys negotiate settlements nor how juries assess awards.  Although there is not an accurate science to analyzing verdicts and settlements, there are methods to project realistic numbers and set expectations for clients. 

After a case is discussed with the client, an attorney determines whether the client has standing and if the case is ripe, using the attorney’s skill, knowledge, education, experience and training.  Standing, or locus standi, is the ability for the party to bring the case to court.  When the facts of a case are such that judicial intervention is warranted, the case is considered ripe.  If the attorney concludes that the client has standing and the case is ripe, then options for resolving the case are communicated to the client.  The client’s next question typically is, “how much is the case worth?”  The short answer is, “it depends.”  Further, there is no formula to calculate case values.  However, there are various methods attorneys may use to assist with the value of the case by researching settlements and trial awards.

First method: A verdict analyzer tool is helpful to set the client’s expectations.  LexisNexis’ Verdict and Settlement Analyzer provides a guide for trial awards and settlements by considering case type, location and recency.  Additionally, it assists to set realistic expectations for the client.  Entered search terms or case decisions generate the courts, jurisdictions, case details, and awards in US Dollars.  For example, in the California case of Camacho, Evangeline & Jose v. City of Cudahy, La County Sheriff (1994), the jury awarded $5.3 million.  While in the Illinois case of Michael A. LaPorta, as Guardian of the estate and person of Michael D. LaPorta v. City of Chicago; Gordon Lounge, Inc. d/b/a Brewbakers; Ruth G., Inc. d/b/a McNally’s (2017), the jury awarded $44.7 million.  Although both cases arise from civil rights issues, police shootings, and death, they differ because of the states, jurisdictions and specific case facts.  Thus, the analyzer provides a range of past verdicts, settlements for defense and plaintiffs, and offers a method for assessing the value of similar cases.

Second method: A valuation handbook is a useful resource because it contains studies of multiple cases, statistical analysis and different types of injuries.  Valuation handbooks provide summaries of state and federal cases, as well as specific case type areas, such as wrongful death, malpractice, and bodily injuries.  Finally, a valuation handbook offers the attorney a method to discuss past awards with clients and manage expectations.

Third method: Jury surveys provide real-time analysis for a client’s potential award outcome because the survey includes the human element.  Jury surveys produce statistical analysis of potential juror awards which combine such factors as: actual case facts, current media climate and social attitudes, and damage ranges for cases that went to trial.  Upon review of the data, the attorney has a realistic range for damages for their case. 

Fourth method: Mock jury trials composed of real people from the local community where the case will be tried is another method to value a case.  This method is beneficial to attorneys because it allows the attorney to discuss the results and awards with the jurors.  Further, the jurors’ feedback provides a realistic representation of awards and verdicts that can potentially be obtained in an actual trial.  The attorneys can also address any weaknesses or loopholes in their cases. Mock juries can be in-person or virtual. 

Several factors are considered to reach a case settlement, and an attorney has various tools to help project settlement ranges.  When parties cannot reach a settlement, and the case goes to trial, jurors will determine liability and if the Defendant is at fault, an award for damages.  Toward the end of a trial, the judge will instruct the jurors not to include emotions in their deliberations, yet the reality is that human emotions are impossible to completely remove.  Accordingly, emotions influence the award, and as such, appealing to jurors’ emotions may render higher awards when done in a proper fashion that does not jeopardize the verdict. 

Understanding the above may help temper come clients’ casino-winning dreams and replace the dreams with realistic expectations for settlement and/ or a jury award.

**Name changed to protect privacy