A settlement conference is supervised by the trial judge or by another judge who is assigned to the settlement conference by the court administration. The parties meet with the judge informally in the judge’s chambers (his office) and try to resolve the case. The judge makes no rulings and issues no orders during the conference. The decision either to settle or to proceed to trial remains with the parties.
Given the pressure of his court docket, the judge may have only a couple of hours to devote to the settlement conference. Because aviation cases can be complex, that often isn’t enough time.
A mediation is similar to a settlement conference. But instead of the settlement talks being supervised by a judge, in a mediation the talks are supervised by a neutral lawyer or a retired judge. The parties pay the mediator for his time. The mediator, unlike a sitting judge, has no docket pressures and may spend several days working with the parties if that appears constructive. That’s one reason why a mediation may be more likely than a settlement conference to resolve an aviation accident case.
Another reason a mediation may be more effective is that, while a settlement judge is assigned to the case, a mediator is selected by the parties. Though the parties to an aviation lawsuit can choose any mediator they want, they usually select one who is knowledgeable about airplane or helicopter accidents or, depending on the case, airline mass disasters. The mediator may even be a pilot. Sometimes the parties select a mediator because he or she has experience — as either a lawyer or judge — in cases involving the type of burn injuries or traumatic brain injuries that are common in aviation accidents. The expertise means that the mediator is "on the same page" with the parties as well as with any insurers who may be involved.