• June 21, 2013

School of Small FIshWe have a common word for “unable to read” (illiterate).  We have a less common word for “unable to perform math” (innumeracy).   The United States is doing quite well on literacy.  Many believe it is falling dangerously behind other countries on numeracy.

In fact, the ability to understand and work with numbers remains a deep mystery studied in cognitive science.  For some of us, digits are like an ever-mutating somewhat elusive cloud.  People suffering from brain damage may be able to read and speak fluently but they may be unable to see any difference in quantity between 2343 and 9805 (let alone 1.54 vs. 0154 vs. 154 vs. (2 x 77) or 1:54 for that matter).

Bottom line: humans (and even lawyers) are particularly prone to error when numbers come into play.  Proceed with caution…

Financial institutions have known this for hundreds of years, of course, and, for over 500 years, they have taken various measures to guard against error.

So what happens when a lawyer proposes “10000 dollars” to settle a case when the client’s exposure appears to be no greater than $4,615.62?

In a recent unpublished decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Court reversed the Hennepin County Trial Court, in part, ruling that the plaintiff and her counsel could not necessarily exploit the extra zero to settle the case for $10,000.  “[T]here is a fact issue whether appellant’s settlement offer reasonably raised a presumption of error that imposed on respondent a duty to inquire about the offer,” the Court held, remanding the case to the trial court for resolution of this issue.

In other words, under Minnesota law, the court system will not easily or automatically approve an erroneous settlement based on a unilateral error like a typographical error.  If a lawyer has reason to believe the settlement offer was a mistake, the law places a duty on that lawyer to confirm (or correct) the proposed settlement.

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