Shumway Hall, Shattuck-St Mary's School, Faribault, Minnesota, photo by Jonathunder

Shumway Hall, Shattuck-St Mary’s School, Faribault, Minnesota, photo by Jonathunder

Update (February 16, 2017): As predicted (and as urged) below, this case settled before trial. Although many lament the paucity of civil trials in current U.S. law, this lawsuit was one of many, if not most, where settlement seems a better result than the expense, uncertainty, and stress of trial.

Original post (November 18, 2016)Regular Minnesota Litigator readers already know about the Shattuck-St. Mary lawsuit, which owes its origin to the bizarre sexual misconduct some years ago by Lynn Seibel, a former teacher at the school.

This week U.S. District Court Judge Ann D. Montgomery (D. Minn.) issued the Court’s “Notice of Assignment of Case for Trial” (snarky proposed edit: “Notice of Trial”?) setting a Monday, February 6, 2017 trial start date.

Young civil litigators might want to review the notice to learn (or remind themselves) of what is required before trial and when it is required. The various filings required before trial (witness list, exhibit list, deposition designations, jury instructions, etc.), particularly for a trial like this which is scheduled to be a 20-day trial, demands a lot of work.

The notice also prompts me to raise the question of whether the rarity of civil trials in the United States is a good thing or a bad thing. As pointed out in the linked article, Sr. U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) seems to think it is a bad thing.

Even in civil lawsuits that have not settled by the time these pretrial submissions are due, I believe that more than 50% settle before trial. This is just my hunch, but I bet the statistic is pretty close to 50/50.

What do you think is best for the students victimized by their former teacher, the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, and the public in this particular case?

In my opinion, in cases like this one (and in most cases), there is no question but that the best outcomes are negotiated settlements rather than trials.

The Plaintiffs would be spared the stress and deep discomfort of reliving their past experience in an open courtroom.

Shattuck-St. Mary’s would undoubtedly prefer to avoid trial, the expense and the negative publicity, as well.

As for the public interest, I would expect it in this lawsuit to be low. This case does not raise any novel legal issues. Trial, regardless of outcome, would unlikely have any meaningful impact on school policies, on deterring unlawful conduct, or on educating our children to minimize or avoid such risks. And, of course, there is a general public interest in minimizing the substantial expense that trials impose on our court systems.

The Plaintiffs have suffered injuries in this case that are plainly incalculable in terms of money. Step back and think about it for a moment: asking a jury to set dollar amounts for their injuries is absurd. Putting a jury through 20 days of trial, bombarding jurors with documents, witness testimony, and expert testimony and then asking the jury to fill out damage awards on verdict forms is “imprecise,” to put it mildly.

In my opinion, Judge Rakoff’s point is not that trials are better than settlements but that, given the cost of civil litigation, both trials AND settlements are unattainable for most Americans in most legal disputes. And there is no doubt he is right about that.

Finally, though, in contemplating trials, only a fool ignores the inherent and extraordinary uncertainty of all trials. Remember Jesse “Show Me The Money” Ventura, who enjoyed a $1.35 million jury verdict until his win was erased on appeal and now he’s fighting imposition of costs against him for over $50,000?

This is all by way of saying that I predict this case will settle before trial and, for all concerned, I hope it does. The parties have agreed on mediation before Greg Weyandt, a respected and well-known mediator, in December.

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