Litigants view mediation process as affordable option to settle cases quickly |

Litigants view mediation process as affordable option to settle cases quickly

Legal mediator John Noble tells the story of two brothers killed in a car crash. The families, even in mourning, soon were divided over which brother was at fault.

With a six-figure insurance settlement at stake, they filed lawsuits. Expert witnesses were hired. Not surprisingly, the experts came up with conflicting scenarios as to which brother was behind the wheel.

In court, one side would win everything.

Attorneys for both sides decided to call Noble in to break the deadlock and stop the rising cost of litigating the case in open court.

Noble brought the sides together to settle the case in a private mediation session. In the end, the families divided the financial settlement and were able to take steps toward healing their strained relationship.

Similar scenarios are playing out across Pennsylvania.

A decade ago, Noble was a practicing attorney in Greensburg. Today, he is a full-time mediator. His career switch reflects a rapidly growing trend to try to settle civil suits outside of a courtroom with the help of mediators like Noble and Tom Frampton of Pittsburgh, an attorney who divides his time between litigating cases and mediating them.

Mediation has “exploded” in the past five years, said attorney Robert Johnston, another mediator in Westmoreland County.

“Mediation is typically faster, less expensive and more flexible than going to court,” he said.

“In conflicts where ongoing relationships are at issue, enabling the parties to develop their own resolutions may also improve their ability to solve future disputes,” he noted.

Mediators generally enter the picture at the behest of the parties’ attorneys and typically are paid a flat fee by the parties in the dispute, Johnston said.

Anyone can work as a mediator, but many are attorneys. There are a number of training and accreditation programs available, but knowledge of the law is crucial, Noble said.

If a dispute goes to mediation but is not resolved, the parties can return to court for a settlement, he said.

No accurate count of cases

It’s difficult to quantify how much private mediation is taking place, said Pat K. Chew, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh. No one — including the government — is keeping count of the number of cases.

Five years ago, there were fewer than five Westmoreland County attorneys working as mediators. Today, the number of lawyers certified to mediate has jumped to 30 and still is growing, according to Johnston.

The federal district court in Pittsburgh now requires mediation in all civil cases, prompting 300 Allegheny County attorneys to become certified.

“That didn’t exist two years ago,” said Ann Begler, a Pittsburgh attorney with a vigorous private mediation schedule.

Starting in 1999, Noble rapidly expanded his mediation workload, reaching 163 cases in 2006, 250 in 2007 and 276 last year. He cut back this year and expects to handle 240 cases, or about 20 a month.

A matter of ‘risk avoidance’

William Radcliffe, a full-time litigator in Uniontown who also mediates, said the process can work only when the parties come to the table equally at risk or when they are deadlocked.

Frampton, a former common pleas court judge in Mercer County, said mediation is a matter of “risk avoidance” on the part of the parties. “You look at both sides. You think to yourself, what does the plaintiff need out of this?”

Sometimes the stumbling block isn’t a large sum of money, but an apology.

Frampton was party to a mediation in which a man’s 52-year-old wife had died during gall bladder surgery.

“We went around the room,” he said. “When the doctor spoke, he said he wanted to say something and looked at the husband. And what he said was, ‘Would you ever find it in your heart to forgive me?'” Afterward, a settlement was quickly and easily reached.

Session length may vary

Noble said mediation isn’t over until someone walks out. Though the sessions typically last several hours, Noble has sat through marathon sessions that ran 12 hours.

“I try to bring people to reality” by talking straight to them, Noble said.

Other times, he tugs at their emotions.

He told a story involving two brothers who had inherited a grocery store. After a falling-out, the brothers stopped speaking to one another. One filed a lawsuit. Eventually, Noble was asked to mediate. Shuffling between the rooms where the brothers were holed up, he told one, then the other, “Other than the case, your brother wants to know how you’re doing.”

Noble said the case was settled with a compromise. As for the brothers, he thinks they were on their way to renewing their relationship.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.