Profile of the Month – Thomas Lether
Captain Thomas Lether is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the University of Puget Sound Law School. He has been involved in insurance and commercial litigation since 1988. Mr. Lether’s primary clients include numerous National and International insurance companies, several smaller insurers and independent adjusting firms. He also represents a number of contractors, property owners, and business owners. As the founder of Lether & Associates, PLLC in Seattle, Washington, his practice predominantly involves the representation of insurance companies and individuals in the investigation, adjustment and defense of complex coverage matters.
Mr. Lether defends insurance companies in bad faith and Consumer Protection Act litigation. He has been involved in a number of construction defect cases and has tried numerous successful jury verdicts. He has been involved in thousands of coverage investigations. This includes lead counsel in the Pang Warehouse Fire (the largest commercial arson loss ever tried to a jury in Washington State history), Manglona v. Allstate (the largest residential arson loss ever tried to a jury in Washington State), and coverage counsel in such matters as the McGuire Apartment failure, Safeco Field defect claim and the Plaza 305 crane collapse. Mr. Lether represents a number of insurers in the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Rim regarding first and third party claims, including coverage disputes, adjustment concerns, and issues involving water intrusion, collapse, construction defects and environmental claims. Mr. Lether represents insurance brokers, medical institutions, construction professionals in professional liability and class action matters. Mr. Lether has served as an appraiser, expert witness, and mediator, and he is a frequent lecturer on insurance related topics.
Mr. Lether is licensed in the State Courts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court, and the Federal Courts for the State of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Colorado. He has appeared in the majority of all Western States on a pro hoc vice basis and provides coverage advice on a National and International basis. Finally, he is a licensed U.S. Merchant Marine Officer and is qualified to serve as an expert in maritime matters, and holds a designation as a Captain.
To hold this designation, each year he spends at least 100 days on the water, the same way pilots are required to log flight hours each year. Born in Hawaii, he grew up in LA and has always been a water person. He is frequently called to be a maritime expert, and in his work as an attorney, he utilizes his knowledge in maritime law.
He’s very proud of his children. “We’re an active boat family,” he said. His daughter, who was a two-time NCAA champion on the women’s rowing team, recently graduated from University of California at Berkeley and is bound for veterinary school. His son is going to Marquette University and heading for a career in sports law. He is very fortunate as well to have his wife Kerri as an active partner in his business.
- How often do you have cases that involve mediation?
I do at least one mediation case a week. At this point I often have other partners or associates at my firm handle most mediations, but I’m still on call and participate electronically by phone, email or skype. Even if I’m not there, my clients want to know that I’m engaged. I’m personally present in mediation at least three or four times a month.
- What qualities do you look for in a mediator?
I look for mediators based upon on the experience that I’ve had with them or the experience that my clients have had with them. For certain kinds of cases, I like retired judges. Parties will tend to listen to judges more than they listen to other mediators.
3.How strongly do you push to have a mediator you propose be accepted by the other side?
A lot of time, I’d prefer to have the suggested mediator come from the other side. If the recommendation is coming from the other side, then opposing parties will feel as if they are being listened to, and there is a greater chance of getting the case resolved. I’ll often ask the opposing parties: Who do you like? Give me three or four names. Often, the names on their list are the same mediators I would have come up with anyway, but because the recommendations have come from the other side, there is greater credibility in the process.
4.How important is pre-session communication with the parties?
Very important. What I have found is that all of that preliminary work really pays off—the exchange of written materials, or picking up the phone and talking to the other side. The preliminary discussion is important, so I know where the other side is coming from. I also work as a mediator. When I act as a mediator, I’ll have preliminary discussions with both sides. I get as many issues flushed out as I can, so I can get some forward movement going before the actual mediation. Quite often, I’ve seen the non-lawyer party in the case wonder: Why did it take so long and there is no dollar settlement yet? So if you can get that flushed out in advance that’s huge, but it doesn’t happen without communication. People need to communicate more.
- How important is it for the mediator to follow up if the mediation doesn’t result in a settlement?
Equally important. That’s the difference between a good mediator and a bad one. A good meditator continues to work on the case. You can’t just quit after the opening mediation. Sometimes, it takes two or three sessions. Also a lot of the time it means the mediator is just staying on the phone and checking in with the parties. I was just involved in a large case that settled and it was because the mediator kept making those follow-up calls and kept the parties engaged.
- What ADR topics would you like to see discussed at an ADR-related CLE?
I have a couple of ideas for ADR-related CLEs. For one, what makes for a successful mediation? Doing follow-up? Mediation is not just about showing up for eight hours. A good CLE would cover the tools for a successful mediation or the tactics for a successful mediation. Another issue: What are protected communications and what are not protected communications? An additional subject relates to stipulated settlements or consent settlements. Some states allow stipulated settlements and some do not. In Washington state, stipulated settlements are a very big issue. Insurance companies are concerned about these types of settlements. Washington, Arizona and Oregon allow them, but California does not. Later this week, I’m actually presenting on this topic during an insurance seminar that will be held at the Washington Athletic Club (WAC) in downtown Seattle.
- Tell me more about your practice…
I represent primarily insurance companies in coverage-related matters and extra-contractual claims. I do represent private parties. I give my clients advice on insurance issues and represent them in disputes in legal issues. Depending on the jurisdiction, I also represent insurance companies in bad faith claims, liability claims, homeowners, auto, professional liability claims, and construction defect claim. My practice is varied and my cases range from liability in a wildfire in Oregon to a bridge collapse or a multi-car collision in Washington. Insurance touches on every aspect of civil litigation. Insurance companies need my advice to keep them out of trouble
- Are there any issues or trending topics that you would like to discuss?
Years ago, I would try a lot of cases. Now it’s more about getting cases resolved through mediation. Litigation costs have gone through the roof. So there is a growing trend for litigants to settle, and to settle early. The worst case is the fee-driven case, where there is a potential $50K settlement, but the legal fees have escalated to $100K. Fee-driven litigation is never a good thing. Business owners, in particular, have become more cognizant of that. Clients are more likely to ask for budgets to keep the legal bills low. Corporate America is also aware of the legal budgets. Legal expenses impact the bottom line.