10 Tips to Quickly, Amicably, Fairly, and Economically Settle Disputes
With the beautiful weather the month of May brings us in Indiana, generally people are in a happier mood being outside and enjoying the warmth and sunshine of springtime activities. The closer interaction with family, friends, neighbors, and business associates which naturally occurs in springtime brings smiles, fun, and laughter.
In past times if a misunderstanding or dispute arose, this enhanced sense of comradery would result in the amicable settlement of dispute with neighbors or trusted vendors of services or products, rather than rash actions being taking in disparagement of a neighbor or their business. However, with personal civility having ebbed among adults and children now growing up with fewer social interactions with their peers (i.e. smartphones, texting, etc.) we have developed into an increasingly competitive and litigious society. Today, the public is more willing to trade a momentary adrenaline rush gained by striking out at someone perceived as wronging them, in exchange for long-term negative consequences. These actions can result in a relationship lost, a lawsuit filed, and a reputation ruined over relatively trivial matters when viewed through the prism of 20/20 hindsight. It is in this environment that people are quick to make social media posts they often later regret.
Having had the privilege of representing individuals in private practice with these types of matters for many years, my experience is that even if these disputes do not escalate to the extent of providing a potential cause of action for slander or libel, everyone is better served if he or she remembers the following ten (10) tips, especially if they are owners of businesses providing services and products to the public:
1. Do not act on emotion. Focus on a dispassionate goal of getting the matter resolved as quickly as possible and putting the matter behind you.
2. Look for other avenues for resolution. Investigate and take advantage of administrative avenues where consumer advocates offer assistance in resolving disputes. Getting ahead of the matter by being proactive and explaining your factual case to a consumer advocate will often result in a speedier solution on more favorable terms than if the issue lingers. [For example, the Indiana Department of Insurance, Indiana Attorney General’s Office, Better Business Bureau of Central Indiana, etc.]
3. Keep things in proper perspective. Is it really worth a small claims lawsuit being filed and your relationship with your next door neighbor being irrevocably ruined because his newly planted bush or tree abuts your fence, which may possibly cause it to deteriorate more rapidly over the next ten years? Of course not.
4. Get along with your neighbors. Other real-world examples (occurring in the past year) of persons who have initially sought legal redress, but ultimately communicated with their neighbors/service providers and resolved matters:
- A neighbor’s pool backwash leeched on to a neighbor’s property causing some distress to bushes, plants, and grass;
- A sprinkler head was damaged as a result of lawn aeration and/or seasonal opening and closing of the sprinkler system;
- A newly planted neighbor’s bush “trespassed” on a neighbor’s property by 6-8 inches;
- A homeowner routinely blew his grass clippings on his neighbor’s property.
5. Open communication can solve matters quickly. Just in the past week, a neighborhood social media outlet published a homeowner’s delivery of a very public castigation of an irrigation company, by name, alleging a repair to the homeowner’s sprinkler system had been faulty. The homeowner had taken to a social media outlet to harshly criticize the supposed unethical conduct of the irrigation company in failing to redress the problem. Fortunately, the “damaged” sprinkler-head was easily repaired by the company, there was a retraction of the cascade of negative comments made, and within 48 hours the complaining homeowner reversed his critique, offering an unqualified recommendation to the company and attributing his frustrations to “miscommunication”.
6. It’s easy to “lawyer up’ but hard to “de-escalate.” Always remember you can escalate matters which may be initially viewed as irritating and later involve your lawyer in the process if you cannot amicably work things out directly with the individual or business. However, once the matter has escalated, lawyers have been hired, and accusations emotionally leveled, it can be difficult to reverse course. Initially seek a logical, amicable, timely, and economically sensible compromise. By using pre-suit mediation it is often easier to resolve than an effort to do so after a suit has been filed.
Even if litigation has been commenced against you by another party over a dispute, consider hiring an experienced attorney who can work with you to de-escalate matters (for example, you have been sued for an outstanding bill which you have intentionally not paid because the service is incomplete or product purchased was defective). An experienced attorney will have no qualms to litigate if necessary, but will serve your best interests if he/she can arrange for all interested parties to meet intending to calmly discuss options, opportunities, and bring a level-headed approach toward reaching a resolution.
7. Compromise without admission. While they may be in the background, seasoned attorneys can also offer you advice on approaches to pursue reaching an appropriate compromise, while not admitting any wrongdoing or contributing to the problem at issue. Remember that most businesses are keenly aware that if they “make things right” they may keep a loyal customer and actually enhance their reputation within the community.
8. Not every wrong has a practical remedy. Not every perceived problem may have a cost-effective remedy worth pursuing. Do you really want to threaten to pursue an action because your neighbor blows his cut grass onto your property after you have asked him to stop?
9. Respectful communication is key. Communication is always enhanced when there is respect consistently given, active listening undertaken, and the focus remains on seeking a solution to the current situation rather than assessing fault as to who caused the problem. In almost every case, communication is the key.
10. Time and money commitments are often underestimated. Litigation tends to be more expensive, more time consuming for the litigants, and many times may involve both delay and permanently fractured relationships, all of which may have been avoided if cooler heads and dispassionate fair compromise had prevailed.
In summary, “Be Happy, Not Angry!” Seeking a trusted attorney’s sage advice in resolving a dispute should focus initially on a goal of preserving a working relationship or friendship, with your attorney assisting you to avoid being embroiled in on-going litigation. If reasonable compromise proves unsuccessful, your counsel should have a plan to go forward for your approval and be a litigation warrior on your behalf. Regardless of the season, you can often prevent an unnecessary escalation of charges and counter-charges while preserving personal and/or business relationships. Doing so will allow you to concentrate on enjoying your life and focus upon being thankful for the things that really count: good health and strong, positive relationships with family and friends. We at Riley Bennett Egloff LLP remain committed to assisting you with this in mind.
 Note, the law of defamation in Indiana provides a person may establish a claim of defamation (slander if oral, libel if written) by proving the existence of a communication with a defamatory imputation with intentional malice (which includes the reckless disregard of the truth), publication, and damages. A statement is defamatory if it tends to harm a person’s reputation by lowering the person in the community’s estimation or deterring third persons from dealing or associating with the person. “The framers of the Indiana Constitution placed high value on [one’s reputation]” Dugan v. Mittal Steel USA Inc. 929 N.E.2d 184 (Ind. 2010)
 Each county has one or more small claims courts to hear cases of limited damages. For example, Marion County has a small claims court in each township for claims not exceeding $8,000.
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