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Updated: 19 Jul 2024

Distributive Negotiation Settlement

negotiation style


This case study shows how most out of court settlements are resolved through a distributive negotiation style.


A distributive negotiation will focus on the division of a set amount of resources, largely determined by the aspiration price (the maximum that party ‘A’ would like to get, constrained by the lowest amount that party ‘B’ would like to pay), and the reservation price (the lowest amount that party ‘A’ would be prepared to accept, and the maximum that party ‘B’ would prepared to pay). Well over 90% of all civil lawsuits in USA are settled out of court, and most are largely resolved through the application of a distributive negotiation.

Practical case study

On a dreary rainy night in October of 1968, a young woman was driving behind a truck in the U.S. Perhaps impatient with the speed of the transport in front of her, the young woman by the name of Ms. Anderson steered her vehicle to peer around the lorry driver’s side to see if the way was clear. Before she could react, she was struck head on from an oncoming vehicle from the opposite direction. Ms. Anderson sustained permanent and debilitating injuries as a result of this horrific crash. Just recently, she had retrieved her vehicle from Sorensen Chevrolet which she had been having some repairs completed. Unbeknownst to her, Ms. Anderson did not notice that her front driver’s side headlight was malfunctioning. The oncoming driver who had struck her had not seen her on that dark misty night when the accident occurred.

Mr. Miller, lawyer representing Ms. Anderson, held Sorenson Chevrolet as being liable for the accident and subsequently filed a $1,633,000 law suite against Sorensen. Sorensen had a faulty repair policy with an insurance company (which we shall call ‘ABC Insurance’). The policy had a ceiling of $500,000. Sorensen made it very clear to ABC Insurance that they would readily sue ABC if they settled for anything over the half million limit of the policy, urging them to settle out of court.

Distributive Negotiation

Miller, the plaintiff’s lawyer countered that he would not accept an out of court settlement for anything less than the maximum half million allowed under Sorensen’s insurance policy. ABC went to court and won a summary judgment where the decision rendered entailed that the plaintiff had no legal basis for a trial. ABC made a tentative offer of $25,000. Miller countered this with a demand for $400,000.00 and had in the interim, appealed the court’s decision not to hear the case.

ABC upped their offer to settle at $50,000. In December of 1973, the appeal was heard. The Appellate Court reversed the decision and the summary judgment was overturned. The case could now be heard before a jury which turned the game around. Miller, once again demanded the full half a million. It was not until February of 1973 that ABC upped their offer to $200,000 which was rejected, and then upped their offer to $250,000. Miller lowered his demand to $400,000, as a counter offer. This was rejected by ABC, and he then lowered it again to $350,000. The time factor was beginning to play on the plaintiff, and Ms Anderson was becoming risk averse to the whole negotiation process.


In January of 1975, Miller told ABC that the ‘bottom line’ settlement that he would accept would be $325,000. ABC said they would go to trial over the difference. It was virtually on the court steps that ABC discovered that Miller had been replaced as Ms. Anderson’s counsel. Her new attorney offered ABC another ‘bottom settlement’ of $300,000. which ABC agreed to.

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5.7 out of 5 from 3 responses
  • 10
    Calum Coburn on

    Hi Cheri
    Thanks for visiting and commenting.
    'IF' our case study was a verbatim copy-paste from a Harvard source, or 'IF' we had indeed based our case study entirely from Harvard, THEN you would be correct. However, we have not consulting a Harvard source in writing this case study summary. I'm guessing you're either a Harvard employee or Harvard graduate. Harvard is not the only source of negotiation case studies on this planet. I'd like to suggest that you read more widely. Our sources for this case may have drawn from Harvard. I think you'll find that if we exclude the college students whose lecturers instruct them to quote sources, hardly anybody else really gives a damn. We at Negotiation Experts do not live by the mantra 'publish or perish'. We're not trying desperately hard to keep Harvard on the lips and in front of the eyes of our visitors and clients. All our content is shared for free for the world to benefit from. This appears to be a different mantra from the one I'm guessing you're living to. If you don't like what you read here, click back or close your browser. We're not selling anything to you or asking anything from you.

  • 4
    Cheri Thomas on

    I note that this case was first published by the Harvard Business School, The Sorensen Chevrolet File, case 9-175-258 authored by John Hammond. It would be ethical if the owners of this site would cite the actual source.

  • 8
    pokerface on

    it's interesting that the recent game show is so much like out of court settlement stripped of its legal complexity. its all about risk vs reward and making a timely deal.this is the case in everything from finding price in real estate stocks or disputes between major world powers whether corporations or states. the fundamentals play an initial role but the technicals of settlement override them.

    poker comes to mind.

  • 20
    Lester Rennard, LLM, on

    The distributive aka positional bargaining style of negotiation is admittedly a widely used approach to negotiating out of court settlement of litigated disputes. Because of its highly competitive zero sum nature that emphasizes the maximizing of value for one party at the expense of the other, it is utilized more often when the adversarial parties do not have or hope to have an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship. As opposed to the integrative or problem solving style that emphasizes collaboration for mutual gains, the distributive style does not concern itself with the idea of how to expand the available resources to create win-win resolutions. The tactical goal of the plaintiff in the settlement negotiation process is to set its aspiration demand at an exaggerated level much beyond the value at which it is willing to settle, to influence the possible outcome since it believes that it might not get exactly what it considers a fair settlement. The defendant, on the other hand, often goes in the opposite direction. The main factor that influences their tactical moves is their perception of the strength of their individual cases. It is also the style that often results in an impasse when position is emphasized above interest.

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