On March 11, 2009, Cornerstone Research released its report of 2008 securities lawsuit settlements entitled "Securities Class Action Settlements: 2008 Review and Analysis" (here). Cornerstone previously released its review of 2008 securities class action filings, which can be found here. Among other things, the newly released Cornerstone Report concludes that "the value of cases settled in 2008 was lower than the historically unprecedented high totals reported from 2005 through 2007." Cornerstone’s March 11, 2007 press release regarding the report can be found here.


Although the Cornerstone Report is more or less consistent with prior analyses of the 2008 settlements (for example, the previously released study by NERA Economic Consulting, which can be found here), it also differs in some specific details. The differences are in part explainable due to the methodology used to assign settlements to a particular year. In the Cornerstone Report, the designated settlement year corresponds to the year in which the hearing to approve the settlement was held, rather than the year in which the settlement was first announced.


The Report finds that the median value of 2008 settlements was $8 million, which is lower than 2007’s all-time high median of $9 million but is higher than the median of $7.4 million for all cases settled during the period 1996 through 2007. Median settlements as a percentage of estimated damages were generally higher for cases settled in 2008 compared to settlements during the period 2002-2008. Just over half of the 2008 settlements were for less than $10 million, although the number of "very small settlements" is declining, while the number of settlements in the $20-$25 million range is increasing.


The average settlement in 2008 "fell dramatically" from $62.7 million in 2007 to $31.2 million, which is partly due to the fact that there were no settlements approved in 2008 that exceeded $1 billion (by contrast to 2007, during which the massive Tyco settlement was announced). If the top four all-time settlements are excluded from the analysis, 2008’s average settlement of $31.2 million is "in line with" the average settlement during the period 1996 through 2007 of $34.6 million. (All settlement amounts are adjusted for inflation and are expressed in 2008 dollars.)


The Report found that the average time from filing to settlement has increased steadily. Whereas historically cases settled approximately three years after filing, during 2007 and 2008, the average time from filing to settlement increased to three and a half years.


The Report also identified a number of factors that appeared significant with respect to settlement values:


1. GAAP Violations: The Report found that GAAP violations, which were alleged in 70% of 2008 settled cases, "continued to be resolved with a larger settlement amount and a higher percentage of estimated damages relative to cases not involving accounting allegations."


2. Restatements: Allegations involving restatements were involved in 35% of 2008 settlements. However, cases with restatements "are no longer associated with a statistically significant increase in settlement amounts," consistent with PCAOB research concluding that restatement announcements "are viewed by the market as less significant events." However, cases in which an accountant was named as defendants continued to settle for the "highest percentage of estimated damages among cases with accounting allegations."


3. ’33 Act Claims: Controlling for the presence of underwriter defendants, the presence of Section 11 or Section 12(a)(2) claims is "not associated with a statistically significant increase in settlement amounts." The Report does note that suits with ’33 Act allegations reached "historically high levels" in 2007 and 2008, and that as these cases settle over the next few years, the importance of ’33 Act claims in determining settlement amounts "may increase."


4. Institutional Investor Plaintiffs: When institutional investors are lead plaintiffs, settlements are "significantly higher." However these higher settlements are "associated with public pension plans, as opposed to union funds or other types of institutional investors."


5. Accompanying Derivative Claims: The number of settlements of securities class actions that were accompanied by derivative actions decreased in 2008 compared to prior years. But with respect to the securities suits that were accompanied by derivative actions, the settlement amounts were "significantly higher." In general, cases with accompanying derivative actions tend to be larger (in terms of estimated damages) and also typically involve accounting allegations and public pension plaintiffs, and include accompanying SEC actions. Controlling for these other factors, the Report concludes that cases involving derivative actions "are associated with statistically significant higher settlement amounts."


6. SEC Actions: Cases with associated SEC actions are involve "significantly higher settlements" as well as higher settlements as a percentage of estimated damages.


7. Non-Cash Components: 9% of 2008 settlements involved non-cash components. Settlements involving non-cash components are statistically higher in value, even controlling for estimated damages and the nature of the allegations.


The Report concludes with several remarks about the recent wave of subprime and credit crisis related securities litigation. First the report notes that the three settlements of these cases so far include the $475 million Merrill Lynch class action settlement. The Report notes that the Merrill case reached settlement in 18 months, which is relatively quick compared to other cases. Otherwise, however, the Report notes that, with only three of these cases settled so far, "it is still too early to anticipated what impact, if any" settlements of the credit crisis cases will have on overall settlement trends.


(My running table of subprime and credit crisis related securities lawsuit settlements and dismissals can be accessed here. My commentary on the Merrill Lynch settlement can be found here.)


The Report concludes with an observation regarding the damages represented in the 2008 securities lawsuit filings. That is, the "disclosure dollar losses" (a defined term in the Report representing one measure of investor losses) associated with the 2008 filings "reached historic highs in 2008." Because disclosure dollar loss is a "significant predictor of settlement size," the size of settlements "may increase in the future."


The Report reflects a number of different findings of significant interest to D&O insurers. In particular, the Reports finding regarding the increase in settlements in the $20 to $25 million could have significant implications for excess insurers that are active in this space. Moreover, the Report’s detailed analysis of factors affecting settlement values could be important considerations in setting case reserves.


However, D&O insurers will also want to take a couple of additional considerations into account in assessing the implications of this report. First, the Cornerstone report reflects only settlement amounts. D&O insurers’ losses in connection with any given claim also include defense expense, which is not reflected in the Cornerstone study. Indeed, D&O insurers can incur significant amounts of defense expense even if a case is dismissed and there is no settlement.


In addition, the Cornerstone study reflects only class action settlements. It does not take into account any amounts that defendants or their insurers were obligated to pay as part of settlements to plaintiffs that opted out of the settlement class. As I have noted previously, opt outs are an increasingly important factor in the resolution of securities lawsuits. As a result, class action settlement data along may insufficiently express the overall dollar exposure of securities class action defendants and their insurers.


The Cornerstone contains extensive additional analysis and warrants reading at length and in full. Once again, the Report’s authors, Laura Symons and Ellen Ryan, have done an outstanding job analyzing the latest settlements and explaining their findings.