Surprising Settlements: McDonald’s, Erin Andrews & DeKalb County

May 12, 2016

It was big news in March when Erin Andrews, sports reporter and co-host of Dancing with the Stars, was awarded a whopping $55 million dollars by a Tennessee jury in her lawsuit against Marriott. This came after an incident in 2008 when she was filmed through her hotel room’s peephole that had been reversed by a man later criminally convicted for the act (and for stalking Andrews). A few weeks later – and with a bit less fanfare, it was announced that Andrews and Marriott had settled for an undisclosed amount.

But why would Andrews agree to a settlement after winning in front of a jury? There are all sorts of reasons why parties settle before, during, and after a trial has concluded. In Andrews’ case, we might never know her exact reasoning for settling or for how much she settled. However, there was clearly an incentive for her to do so.

Settlements offer parties a way to avoid the pain, stress, time, and money that goes into a trial and any appeals that may come up after a jury makes its decision. It also can be a way to allow both/all parties to come away feeling like justice was served. What happened in Erin Andrews’ case? She may have wanted to avoid an appeal that would have furthered the stress of rehashing her ordeal.

Reaching a settlement when both parties have incentive often results in the best possible outcome – though often in light of terrible circumstances. In April 2015, a horrific crash in Bryan County killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students and severely injured two others. As the one-year anniversary approached this April, the parties announced settlements for cases involving three of the students on the eve of their trials. Two others had already settled and another is expected to settle. In cases like this, a settlement is not surprising. The defendant never contested fault, and a trial would have only furthered the tragedy for the family.

Settlements prior to trial, however, aren’t always possible when the two sides are very far apart on how much they think their case is worth.

It seems everyone has heard of the 1994 McDonald’s “hot coffee” case. It is viewed as a cautionary tale about excessive jury awards and how people will sue over anything. While the McDonald’s case is over-referenced in this respect (the poor woman received 3rd degree burns!), let’s face it, juries can be unpredictable. Because of that, sometimes, settling may be a good idea even when you feel like the facts are on your side. In the McDonald’s case, the plaintiff offered to settle for $20,000, which McDonald’s refused. The jury then awarded her nearly $3 million.

Just recently, a DeKalb County jury awarded a plaintiff $161,000 for injuries she sustained when she walked into a ladder. A bright orange ladder. In the middle of a sidewalk that she had walked past twice just minutes before the accident. Despite video evidence that showed the plaintiff TEXTING as she walked into the ladder, the jury determined she was only minimally responsible for her own injuries and awarded her more money than her own attorney requested.

It’s important to note that continuing litigation through an appeal for both sides can be difficult, which is why post-verdict settlements aren’t necessarily uncommon. Just as Erin Andrews settled after the verdict, so did McDonald’s (part of that settlement is responsible for those Caution! warnings on your coffee cups).

All of that said, should you consider settling your case? Maybe. You have to ask yourself what you want from your lawsuit.

Donald Trump says he doesn’t settle lawsuits because it will encourage people to sue you. But the truth is, money spent settling cases is often money well spent. And lest you think going to a jury trial is your way to a big payday, excessive jury awards are often lessened by judges to a more “reasonable” amount before an appeal is even filed. Legal fees and taxes have to be considered as well.

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