At the request of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, the Montgomery Bar Association has reconstituted its alternative dispute resolution program with the hope that insurance companies would be interested in bringing their civil cases into the program for arbitration or mediation.
Cases involving the same insurance carriers will be scheduled in front of experienced mediators or arbitrators on the same day so that way carriers can send their adjusters and counsel to deal with many cases at one time.
Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas M. Del Ricci, the administrative judge in charge of civil cases, said the idea started with the court for an ADR program in which insurance carriers could participate to potentially resolve some of the personal injury cases involving their insured.
But because there are only five trial judges available to hear nonequity civil cases, there are not enough judicial resources for judges to oversee potential settlement proceedings, Del Ricci said. That lack of resources led to the idea of turning over the program to the bar association, the judge said.
The newly constituted Center for Mediation and Arbitration has a focus on personal injury cases in which the praecipes for trial readiness have not yet been filed. The center also has a smaller panel of arbitrators and mediators than the prior program had.
Allstate has participated for two days so far and will be participating for a third day this week, said Bruce Pancio, an attorney with Walsh Pancio in Lansdale, Pa., and one of the center’s mediators/arbitrators. Pancio was the mediator for the two days held so far with Allstate, and 11 of 12 cases settled, he said.
Plaintiffs counsel paid an $80 administrative fee, and Allstate paid for the balance of the day, and each case was given an hour, Pancio said.
"This was never intended to be a mandatory program but what we have found is there is great interest among the plaintiffs bar and the insurance carriers for such a program," Del Ricci said.
Del Ricci said he thinks the new program will "greatly help" with the court’s pre-praecipe inventory, while the judges and court administration "could resolve the post-praecipe inventory issue."
The civil-court leadership has been working over the last couple of years to reduce civil cases lingering on its docket. For example, the number of civil cases ready for trial in the court was reduced by 45 percent in 2012 from close to 540 cases to just over 240 cases.
Robert F. Morris, of Morris and Clemm in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and one of the center’s mediators/arbitrators, said that attorneys can "get a pretty quick trial once lawyers determine they are ready for trial," and having ADR available locally will probably shorten that wait time even more.
The center will "help some of the cases that may be languishing on the list for a while," Morris said.
The center is focusing on personal-injury cases initially, but the bar association would like to handle any civil cases, Morris said.
The lesson learned from the prior program, the Davenport Dispute Resolution Center, is that insurance carriers need to be worked with more closely to bring cases into mediation, Morris said.
One of the improvements was to increase the rates that arbitrators charge through the bar association’s imprimatur in order to attract the most commonly used arbitrators in the county, Morris said. But the program’s costs are still "cost-effective in comparison to other ADR programs," Morris said.
The ADR panel members are the "business leaders" in mediation and arbitration in Montgomery County, Morris said.
"This is a voluntary program. This is not something the court is mandating," Morris said. "In order for a voluntary program to be successful we have to be sure all parties feel comfortable, that we have the right kinds of mediators and arbitrators."
Pancio said that he gave credit to both sides coming to the mediations under the new center that there is a different value to cases from suburban Montgomery County in comparison to urban Philadelphia County due to the common understanding that Philadelphia juries tend to be more liberal and Montco juries tend to be more conservative.
The arbitrators on the panel know Montgomery County and know the county’s jury pool, Pancio said.
"The more we can get our name out [and word of] our services to [plaintiffs] attorneys and to insurance carriers and their attorneys, we will be used," Pancio said.
Paul C. Troy, president of the Montgomery Bar Association and of Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer in Norristown, Pa., said, "I’m very excited that our bar association has been able to put together a program that is efficient, inexpensive and local."