Pros & Cons Of Trials & Settlements

The modern legal system, at its base, is designed to peacefully resolve disputes without resorting to violence, intimidation, and other unethical measures. Criminal trials are designed to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt and, once established, punish those that have committed a crime. In civil court, litigation is when two parties disagree about a particular circumstance. If a plaintiff's argument is found similarly sound, based on submitted evidence, then a verdict to recognize that, as well as financial compensation, is awarded.

In some civil instances, however, a court trial never enters into the picture. These are the situations where the decision is made to settle out of court, with a private—but legally binding—agreement. So is one better than the other?

To answer that question, you have to look at the pros and cons of both.

Trials Vs. Settlements

A litigation trial is structurally, similar to a criminal trial. In both, there is an accusation and a defense against those accusations. Both sides, the plaintiff and defendant, are typically represented by lawyers. However, as with criminal trials, people can choose to represent themselves. Also identical to a similar trial is a jury's presence to whom the lawyers will submit evidence and present arguments. The jury then deliberates over the case and delivers a verdict to the judge in favor or not of the plaintiff.

Settling out of court is a much less process-intensive affair. Here the two parties reach an agreement together, often with lawyers arbitrating or moderating the process. If it's possible for an agreement to be struck, it's then agreed upon, legally binding contracts are drawn to define the terms of the settlement, and once everything has signed off, the dispute has been resolved.
So why choose one over the other?

Going To Trial

Pro: It's public.

In some instances, it's not just enough to receive financial compensation; there is a story to tell, a public lesson to be learned. That is only possible with a court verdict and a public trial. With a court trial, there is no hiding from what's been done; everything is made public.

Suppose you are victimized for example, by a wealthy individual or a big business that wants to make everything "quietly go away" to avoid bad press. In that case, a public trial is the only way to draw attention to what's been done.

Pro: It Sets A Precedent

Because trials are a matter of public record, they can be crucial in setting legal precedents that will then be looked at and followed for years to come. It is because individuals and families went to court over toys injuring children or food poisoning cases resulting in death that consumer protection laws are as thorough as they are today.

Con: More Time Intensive

While some court trials go down in legend as taking years to resolve, that's thankfully not a typical timeline. The average court trial for litigation is usually no more than 4-5 days. However, the trial date is set far in advance. There is a lot of effort required to gather evidence, find witnesses or expert testimony, and prepare arguments.

Con: A Lot Of Paperwork

Unsurprisingly, anything going through the legal system will have a lot of red tape and administrative requirements. This is one reason it's crucial to get a lawyer to navigate the minefield of bureaucratic needs that a litigation trial has.

Settling Out Of Court

Pro: It's Final

When a court settlement reaches a resolution, it is legally binding and no longer contestable once that agreement is signed. This is not always the case with a trial. Even if the plaintiff wins, there is sometimes the possibility of an appeal to get that decision reversed. Settlements can't be changed.

Pro: It's Faster

A settlement can be hashed out at a negotiation table with lawyers or other moderators, unlike a trial: no court dates, no juries, no legal process to be followed. So for people looking for a quick resolution, this is often the best way to achieve it.

Con: No Liability

Because an out of court settlement is private, the results of the settlement can't be disclosed. This means that once a case has been resolved, even if the other party providing compensation is guilty of wrongdoing, that incident can no longer be discussed. If you wanted to ensure an offense by another person or company doesn't go unrecognized, out of court settlements are essentially buying your silence.

Con: Lower Amounts

It's not unusual, due to speed and lack of any legal reinforcement for settlements to be lower than the kind of compensation acquired through a court trial. Often the needs of an out of court settlement—such as privacy for the plaintiff—make it easier for the other party to negotiate down. This also means extra amounts, such as punitive damages, aren't possible either.

Ultimately, it would be best to discuss your options with a personal injury lawyer or another attorney before making a decision..