Party Unable to Void Settlement Despite Allegation of Duress

The plaintiffs in a medical malpractice suit settled their case after mediation, then tried to get out of the settlement. When they couldn’t, they sued their lawyers for legal malpractice, claiming the lawyers settled for too low an amount and that their attorneys “had caused them to settle under duress.” The Appeals Court of Massachusetts denied their claim. Abdulky v. Lubin & Meyer, 102 Mass. App. Ct. 441 (Mass. App. Ct. 2023) Plaintiffs’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied this week.

The parents of a 5-year-old child brought the medical malpractice action in 2015 against a number of doctors and their hospital after the child’s arm was amputated below the elbow. The parents engaged in mediation and in settlement negotiations, after which they agreed to accept the defendants’ insurers’ offer of $6 million. However, at the settlement hearing, the parents indicated that they had reservations about the settlement. The judge had an off-the-record discussion with the parents about their reservations, then determined that the case was settled. The judge also asked the father if he felt “pressured” into a settlement; the father said no. At the next hearing, the parents attempted to reverse the settlement; the judge did not let them. At yet another hearing, the parents filed a motion to void the settlement agreement on grounds that the settlement failed to properly consider the costs of the child’s future prosthetic needs, as well as that the parents had entered the agreement under duress, due to their fear that a guardian ad litem would be appointed to evaluate the settlement.

When the trial court nevertheless enforced the settlement, the parents sued their attorneys for malpractice. The appeals court determined that the parents hadn’t produced evidence demonstrating that the settlement was insufficient to cover the costs of the child’s future prosthetic needs, so the attorney malpractice action was dismissed.

This case proves how difficult it is to get out of a settlement agreement once entered into; courts want finality and aren’t sympathetic to a party that changes their mind. It also illustrates the feeling of pressure or duress that a party may feel in the course of a mediation or settlement negotiations. Attorneys and mediators do well to note, and try to address, this feeling before it threatens to undo the settlement.