Wednesday and Thursday, Connecticut’s civil courts are having a blowout special: all small claims cases settled in 45 minutes or less.
Reviving the Settlement Conference Program that was last in statewide use in the late 1980s, Chief Administrative Judge for the Civil Division John J. Langenbach ’60 has launched a two-day assault on the current backlog of potential jury trial cases.
In civil courthouses across Connecticut, judges will not preside over any trials for the next two days. Instead, they will mediate short informal discussions with plaintiffs, defendants and claims adjusters in hopes of reaching a quick settlement and making a major dent in bloated case inventories.
In August, attorneys litigating civil cases identified those that could be easily resolved after a brief hearing, Langenbach said. Judges then selected some of those cases for the hearings that are scheduled to begin today in Connecticut’s 13 superior courts.
Although 45 minutes may not seem like much time for parties to reach an agreement, Steven Hildrich, the case flow coordinator for the New Haven civil section of the superior court, said the program will succeed nonetheless.
“Most of these cases are not the very labor-intensive ones,” Hildrich said. “The reason certain cases are selected is because they can be handled just as adequately in this different setting.”
Langenbach added that most of the cases scheduled to be resolved involve minor automobile accidents. More protracted scenarios such as medical malpractice and product liability cases were not eligible for the settlement program, he said.
Hildrich said he hopes the specific criteria for eligible cases will make this settlement program more successful than the civil court “blitz” of 1989 — the last time the program was implemented on a statewide scale.
He said the low settlement rate in the past might have been due to the policies different insurance companies — then the majority of the defendants in these cases — employed in settling small claims cases. Hildrich speculated that the companies’ strict settlement standards were to blame.
But Langenbach said he believes this blitz will be different.
“We’ve deliberately chosen this time of year because it’s when corporations like insurance companies look at year-end numbers and want there to be fewer cases on the books,” he said.
Carrying a case for a long period of time and waiting for it to go to trial is an expensive proposition for any insurance company, Langenbach said. The company has to retain counsel and pay for its lawyers to attend court proceedings.
“It’s really not very cheap,” Langenbach said.
In addition to insurance companies, which are usually on the defense, plaintiffs might also benefit from the settlement conferences.
New Haven attorney Jennifer Schancupp said it is advantageous for plaintiffs and their attorneys in small claims cases to settle as early as possible.
“The longer the case draws out, the lower the probability of getting a favorable settlement,” Schancupp said.
She said that since most plaintiff’s lawyers operate on a contingency basis, they often jump at the chance to reach a fast agreement.
And Neil Ferstand, the executive director of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association — a group primarily composed of plaintiffs’ lawyers — said he would not be surprised if everyone but defense attorneys welcomed this speedy resolution system.
“Those defense attorneys just can’t stand having their feet in the fire,” Ferstand said.