Note to victims of accidents, medical malpractice, broken contracts and the like: When you sue, make a deal.
That is the clear lesson of a soon-to-be-released study of civil lawsuits that has found that most of the plaintiffs who decided to pass up a settlement offer and went to trial ended up getting less money than if they had taken that offer.
“The lesson for plaintiffs is, in the vast majority of cases, they are perceiving the defendant’s offer to be half a loaf when in fact it is an entire loaf or more,” said Randall L. Kiser, a co-author of the study and principal analyst at DecisionSet, a consulting firm that advises clients on litigation decisions.
Defendants made the wrong decision by proceeding to trial far less often, in 24 percent of cases, according to the study; plaintiffs were wrong in 61 percent of cases. In just 15 percent of cases, both sides were right to go to trial — meaning that the defendant paid less than the plaintiff had wanted but the plaintiff got more than the defendant had offered.
The vast majority of cases do settle — from 80 to 92 percent by some estimates, Mr. Kiser said — and there is no way to know whether either side in those cases could have done better at trial. But the findings, based on a study of 2,054 cases that went to trial from 2002 to 2005, raise provocative questions about how lawyers and clients make decisions, the quality of legal advice and lawyers’ motives.
Critics of the profession have long argued that lawyers have an incentive to try to collect fees that are contingent on winning in court or simply to bill for all the hours required to prepare and go to trial.
“What I would want them to look at was whether or not the lawyers had a strong financial incentive to go to trial,” said Cristina C. Arguedas, a criminal defense lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., when told of the study. “I’m not suggesting the answer, because I don’t know, but that would be my question.”
The study, which is to be published in the September issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, does not directly answer Ms. Arguedas, but it does find that the mistakes were made more often in cases in which lawyers are typically paid a share of whatever is won at trial.