Understanding Party Objectives & Goals: Arizona Settles Firefighter Death Cases
On June 29, 2015, the New York Times reported on the settlement of two wrongful death law suits against the State of Arizona brought by family members of firefighters killed in a terrible wildfire tragedy in 2013. 12 families will receive $50,000 per family and several other families – not parties to the litigation – will receive $10,000 each. These numbers are surprising. The settlement also includes, according to the Times, a number of significant non-economic terms including an acknowledgement that Arizona Forestry Division commanders’ “misguided decisions put the elite firefighting crew, The Granite Mountain Hotshots, at great risk.” On behalf of the Forestry Division, the State of Arizona also agreed to test better equipment, improve incident training and “join a national effort to provide specific lessons about the effects of dry, warmer seasons on wild lands.”
The terms of one settlement include recognition that the commanders “failed to re-evaluate, re-prioritize and update fire suppression strategies and plans after fire behavior and weather conditions dramatically changed…” and, according to the Times, “mostly left the firefighters to fend for themselves as an approaching thunderstorm pushed the fire their way.” We don’t see language like that every day.
In explaining the settlement, counsel for the plaintiffs is quoted as saying his client’s settlement priorities were not so much monetary as “remedial measures and changes to ensure a tragedy like this one never happens again.”
The Arizona settlement underscores how crucial it is to identify the goals and objectives each party brings to the table. At the start of every mediation, I ask each side privately to share what they hope to achieve through the mediation process. It is surprising how often parties have not given this much thought. If the parties, their counsel and the mediator do not understand their objectives, it’s impossible to chart the right course to achieve them. As Yogi Berra put it: "If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."
The firefighter settlement reminds us that it is not always about the money.