Mediators help reduce load in court County program uses lawyers part time for pretrial settlements

85 percent success rate

Action taken in Jan. to improve scheduling of civil lawsuits

April 07, 1997|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

An innovative program that uses veteran lawyers to mediate pretrial settlements in Carroll County is alleviating the crunch of civil lawsuits jamming the court docket.

Since January, the lawyers, who serve as Settlement Conference Masters and handle 10 to 12 cases each Friday, have settled about 128 of 150 cases before trial.

"We have had an 85 percent clearance rate in resolving cases by part-time masters since Jan. 1," said Raymond E. Beck Sr., administrative judge for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

Carroll initiated the program, using lawyers on a part-time basis, with nearly $50,000 from the General Assembly. The money was meant to hire one full-time master, but Beck determined the county would be better served by hiring part-time masters.

"We are paying part-time fees of $50 an hour and getting a lot more for the dollar," he said. "And by using 28 different lawyers, it does not impact adversely on their private practices, where I am sure many are able to earn more than double the hourly fee we can pay."

While some counties employ retired judges or full-time masters or use volunteer lawyers to mediate civil disputes, Carroll is believed to be the only Maryland county to pay part-time masters at an hourly rate.

The program, Beck said, evolved from an effort to streamline court scheduling. More than 7,500 civil cases are pending in Carroll County Circuit Court.

Beck noted that when he became a circuit judge seven years ago, cases were not assigned randomly. Instead, lawyers took cases to a judge they believed would be more favorable.

Now cases are assigned by computer to one of three circuit judges -- the others are Francis M. Arnold and Luke K. Burns Jr. The judge "has the case forever, unless there is a reason for that judge to recuse himself," Beck said.

In implementing his latest effort to lighten the logjam of civil lawsuits, Beck appointed local attorneys to one-year terms in July. They were chosen for their expertise in at least one of nine legal areas: domestic; motor vehicle negligence; product and general liability; malpractice; zoning; real estate; workers' compensation; contract; and estates, trusts and wills.

Judge 'hit a home run'

"I really think Judge Beck hit a home run with this program," said Damian L. Halstead, a part-time master who specializes in contract and estate law. "He showed a great deal of foresight [in recognizing the value of such a program]. I wouldn't be surprised if it catches on throughout the state."

William O'Brien Finch, another part-time master, said the program has benefited everyone -- the courts, judges, opposing parties, their lawyers -- and especially the masters.

"It has been a very positive experience," he said. "The recent success rate may be a statistical aberration -- we have experienced a bunch of recent settlements -- but it is a good way of resolving matters."

Finch said he typically needs 60 to 90 minutes to know whether an auto tort case is likely to reach a pretrial settlement. Divorce cases may take four to five hours to resolve because the parties are more emotionally involved, he said.

"Using experienced lawyers who understand the issues involved in a particular area of the law helps reduce time spent on deciding what the issues are," Beck said.

Halstead has found the program successful on two levels: as a mediator and as an attorney.

"I have settled a few cases as a master and had a few settled before a master," he said. "The program helps an attorney become a better lawyer. Analyzing a case as a part-time master forces you to assess the merits of the case, and you hear arguments from some very talented lawyers."

Both attorneys said they hope the program continues with part-time masters respected in their fields. "Any initial reluctance [concerning this program] on the part of some members of the Carroll County Bar Association has evaporated," Finch said.

The success of the program should not be measured by pretrial settlements alone, Beck said.

In November, for example, about 150 plaintiffs are expected to come to court for settlement conferences involving liability in the 1995 Autumn Ridge natural gas explosion case, Beck said.

Various masters have begun narrowing the issues among the parties, which will be a major factor in avoiding a scheduling nightmare, he said.

Anticipating that state funds may not be available, Beck lobbied the County Commissioners for an additional $25,000 in his fiscal budget for 1998. So far, he has spent about $10,000 of the state money this year. "I wanted them to know what we are doing and how effective the Settlement Conference Masters program has been," Beck said of his presentation before the commissioners.

Saving money

He said he wanted the commissioners to realize the county saves money on jurors when trials are avoided. "We must be doing something right," Beck said. "Lawyers from other counties come, experience the great work the masters are doing, and are going home to their county bar associations and talking about implementing a similar program."

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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