A Comprehensive Theory of Civil Settlement
J.J. Prescott, Kathryn E. Spier
A settlement is an agreement between parties to a dispute. In everyday parlance and in academic scholarship, settlement is juxtaposed with trial or some other method of dispute resolution in which a third-party factfinder ultimately picks a winner and announces a score. The “trial versus settlement” trope, however, represents a false choice; viewing settlement solely as a dispute-ending alternative to a costly trial leads to a narrow understanding of how dispute resolution should and often does work. In this Article, we describe and defend a much richer concept of settlement, amounting in effect to a continuum of possible agreements between litigants along many dimensions. “Fully” settling a case, of course, appears to completely resolve a dispute, and if parties to a dispute rely entirely on background default rules, a “naked” trial occurs. But in reality virtually every dispute is “partially” settled. The same forces that often lead parties to fully settle—joint value maximization, cost minimization, and risk reduction—will under certain conditions lead them to enter into many other forms of Pareto-improving agreements while continuing to actively litigate against one another. We identify three primary categories of these partial settlements: award-modification agreements, issue-modification agreements, and procedure-modification agreements. We provide real-world examples of each and rigorously link them to the underlying incentives facing litigants. Along the way, we use our analysis to characterize unknown or rarely observed partial settlement agreements that nevertheless seem theoretically attractive, and we allude to potential reasons for their scarcity within the context of our framework. Finally, we study partial settlements and how they interact with each other in real-world adjudication using new and unique data from New York’s Summary Jury Trial Program. Patterns in the data are consistent with parties using partial settlement terms both as substitutes and as complements for other terms, depending on the context, and suggest that entering into a partial settlement can reduce the attractiveness of full settlement. We conclude by briefly discussing the distinctive welfare implications of partial settlements.