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It’s The Principle, Damn It!

“You can’t learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.”–Somerset Maugham

“I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles round my neck.” –Stanley Baldwin

“I don’t care about the money. It’s the principle of the thing!”

Phew! Have we heard this before? Sure we have, from claimants, adjusters and attorneys. Do they really mean it? Maybe, but I’m guessing not often. The mediator is quick to translate this proclamation to: “Your offer’s not high enough” or “Your demand is gonna have to come down.”

Principle is a wonderful thing. We should all abide by our principles. But make sure when we herald one we really mean it. I have found, in most mediations, the party is thinking, as in the movie, “Show me the money!”

I will allow for an exception here. Back in ’97, I wrote a whimsical piece entitled “God is my Co-Pilot!” It was based on a true account of an elderly claimant in a mediation. She had stubbornly refused to come off her demand, and stated flatly: “God is with me, and God will be with me at trial.” Nothing her attorney or I could say (in caucus) would change her mind. She and God obviously had something going for her. In fairness, I should say I was never made aware of the outcome of the trial. But these things happen, good people, and if that’s standing on principle, so be it!

Mostly, a stand on principle is either based on a false optimism or is used as a negotiating device. But do not believe for one moment that you will be perceived as taking the high moral ground. To the contrary, you will be seen as a weak negotiator.

Now, all that said, I don’t deny there are occasions when a claimant will seek the lagniappe of an apology for the offense committed against him or her. A lagniappe, that is, something in addition to…THE MONEY. And that’s okay. The true test, however, is when the apology is not forthcoming. A dollar will get you a dime the money offer will still be accepted.

Principles can be involved in legal disputes, there is no denying. The challenge is in how they are put forth in the course of negotiations. In most cases, however, there are rights and wrongs on both sides. Maybe they tilt in one direction or the other, but they still usually find safe harbor in both camps. It is easy to rely too heavily on the “rights,” so that they produce a misguided judgment in the assessment of one’s case.

The legal system, folks, has a voracious appetite for money in the form of costs, and it does not care who’s doing the paying. You can proceed “as a matter of principle” if you want, but the price tag for that honorable position, if indeed that is what it is, may be great. If you do not mean it seriously, then prepare to do the backstroke and to sacrifice a measure of your credibility-or prepare to get out the checkbook.

A trial, for whatever reason a party decides to resort to one, has consequences. As other mediators and I have often pointed out, trials are costly, their outcome is uncertain, the dispute resolution often can be greatly delayed, and they can be extremely stressful. A mediated settlement is the better way to go.


Edward P. Ahrens

Ed Ahrens has been a member of the Florida Bar for over 43 years. He is a certified state and federal court mediator in Tampa, Florida. He is also a freelance writer and former president of National Writers Association, South Florida Chapter. He is the author of the popular book,… MORE >

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