Clients frequently ask their attorneys whether they should arbitrate their commercial and construction disputes instead of litigating in the court system. This question arises either when drafting the contract or, if the contract contains an arbitration clause, once a claim occurs. Claims that require analysis of complex contracts, government regulations, and technical issues, such as those that arise in the construction, environmental, and energy industries, are well-suited to arbitration.
Parties typically want the quickest and least expensive means to a fair result. This is true even for highly sophisticated businesses where the amount in dispute is high. Arbitration gives parties a high level of control in the dispute resolution process. It is specifically designed to provide an alternative to the onerous and expensive discovery and trial procedures required in litigation. Parties can tailor the discovery and schedule to the needs of the case, which drastically reduces the overall time and cost of reaching resolution.
Arbitration also allows parties to select an arbitrator with specialized knowledge necessary to decide the case, which is especially beneficial in complex cases. Because parties agree to arbitration in their contract, they have control over the process in a way that is not available in litigation. For example, the parties may designate the administrative body and applicable rules, require a three-arbitrator panel for a complex case, name a particular arbitrator, require confidentiality, or dictate the timeframe for the hearing.
The following four factors are key considerations in assessing arbitration:
Expertise of decision-maker – One of the most important benefits of arbitration is the parties’ ability to select the arbitrator. This affords parties an opportunity to designate a decision-maker with specific qualifications and expertise needed to understand the contracts, legal issues, engineering and technical facts, and expert evidence to be presented. The parties can also select someone with strong management skills to handle complex matters or difficult decisions. The benefit is two-fold: Fewer resources are needed to educate the decision-maker in the critical industry background information, and the risk of an unreasonable ruling is reduced.
Timeframe for resolution – The median time to resolution in commercial arbitrations is less than one year, whereas the time to trial in federal court is two to three years.* Because appeal rights in arbitration are limited, the award typically terminates the dispute and the expense. However, after a trial, the case could linger through the appeal process for several more years, thus increasing the expense.
In addition to direct cost saving, decreasing the resolution time creates an indirect cost benefit to industry. Because “time is money,” shaving years off the process results in significant savings that likely can be better used advancing the business than litigating a case. Businesses lose billions of dollars every year because of the inherent delays in the litigation process.^ These losses stem from uncertainty in the outcome, capital set aside as reserves for potential losses, open claims reported to insurers, investors, potential clients and auditors, and loss of employee hours and administrative costs expended in litigation. Arbitration offers an alternative to mitigate and control these costs.
Expense – Arbitration typically costs more upfront than litigation. The parties must pay the administrative costs and arbitrator fees, which vary depending on the time and complexity involved, but generally range from $20,000 for a $100,000 claim to $60,000 for a $1 million claim. The costs are shared among the parties, which decreases the per-party cost in multiparty claims.
However, parties can control the cost of arbitration. Discovery, depositions, and document production in complex cases can come with staggering costs. In arbitration, the rules governing discovery and evidence are less formal. Additionally, discovery is more limited, which encourages a streamlined process and reduces costs and time significantly.
Risks – An often-cited risk of arbitration is the lack of appeal right. An arbitration award can only be vacated on limited grounds of fraud, corruption, misconduct, or where an arbitrator exceeds their power.~ However, if the initial decision-maker has expertise in the industry and law involved, the expectation is that the decision will be a well-reasoned one that the parties can accept.
In contrast, a major risk of litigating a complex commercial dispute is the fact-finder’s lack of understanding of the issues, the escalating potential for nuclear verdicts, and the appellate court’s limited power to correct factual findings.
In sum, arbitration is a good choice for dispute resolution where parties want to control the risk of an unreasonable outcome, reduce the time and expense of the process, and select a decision-maker with special expertise in their industry.
About the author: Mary Anne Wolf is an engineer and attorney. She is on the panel of commercial and construction arbitrators for the American Arbitration Association. Her goal as an arbitrator is to assist parties in managing their case for efficient resolution, give a high level of attention to each party’s position, and achieve a fair result.
* AAA, Measuring the Costs of Delays in Dispute Resolution [online]; Micronomics, (March 2017), Efficiency and Economic Benefits of Dispute Resolution through Arbitration Compared with U.S. District Court Proceedings.
^ Efficiency and Economic Benefits, pp. 4-5, 16-23.
~ La. R.S. 9:4210 (LA Binding Arbitration Act); 9 USCA §10 (FAA).