EXCLUSIVE: Inside the historic settlement talks between Fox News and Dominion

Wilmington, Delaware (CNN) Veteran mediator Jerry Roscoe was on a river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday, when he received an urgent phone call.

The voice on the other end asked Roscoe if he would serve as an eleventh-hour mediator. Dominion voting systems against Fox News. The trial was hours away, and according to people familiar with the matter, Dominion planned to force Rupert Murdoch and Tucker Carlson on the witness stand immediately after opening depositions.

While Roscoe sails on a cruise ship, he doesn’t hesitate to take on the unexpected task of brokering a deal to avoid the media law trial of the century.

“I said yes,” Roscoe told CNN on Wednesday, recalling the advice her father gave her at age 16 about accepting work assignments while on vacation. “My dad told me that if someone needs you, they call you, and if they need you, you go.”

The lead attorneys — Justin Nelson for Dominion and Dan Webb for Fox — negotiated a settlement over the weekend before Roscoe was brought in, but they were “really far apart” and no agreement was reached, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. This matter is with CNN.

Attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems speak at a news conference outside the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del., after a jury trial was set to begin Tuesday, April 18, 2023, after Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News was settled. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The next day, Roscoe became familiar with the historic libel case, searching through thousands of pages of documents. And then there was intense “shuttle diplomacy,” with Roscoe oscillating between the two sides, eventually involving phone calls and Zoom meetings for everyone.

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On Sunday night, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis announced that the parties had hired Roscoe, a mediator at the Jams firm. Davis quickly announced a one-day delay to the start of the hearing, to give the mediator a shot at reaching a deal — and he’s not interested in granting additional delays beyond that.

A heated discussion took place on Monday.

In the whirlwind 24 hours that followed, the talks culminated in a historic deal that collapsed shortly after 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, avoiding a high-wattage test that would have forced the right-wing talk network to further reckon. It aired in the wake of the 2020 presidential race, along with election hoaxes.

“It came down to the wire,” Roscoe admitted to CNN.

In addition to speaking to Roscoe, CNN spoke to several people with direct knowledge of the events leading up to the $787.5 million out-of-court settlement. As part of the deal, Fox “acquiesced” to the court’s finding that it had repeatedly aired false claims about Dominion — but notably, Fox was not required to make an on-air correction or retraction.

Fox News attorney Dan Webb (left) and Dominion Voting Systems attorney Justin Nelson (right) arrive with their legal teams outside the Delaware Superior Court in Wilmington earlier Tuesday.

Ahead of the last-second deal, lawyers for both Fox News and Dominion fully anticipated the trial.

Last week, Dominion told Fox News that one of its first witnesses was Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old chairman of Fox Corp., a person familiar with the matter told CNN. Extremist Tucker Carlson, host of Fox News’ 8 p.m., is one of the first people Dominion plans to take the witness stand in Wilmington, Delaware.

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After the jury was sworn in Tuesday morning, all signs pointed to the trial proceeding as planned. Dominion attorney Stephen Shackelford, spotted eating at a subway restaurant in the courthouse’s basement cafeteria during his lunch break, was immediately ready to deliver opening statements. Members of the newly empaneled jury also ate their first — and only — court-sponsored lunch. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Roscoe was finalizing the deal that would ultimately avoid a six-week trial.

“Being in the courtroom often crystallizes the focus on the risks and benefits of litigation,” Roscoe told CNN. “Once the jury sits down and you see the people who are going to decide your fate, it’s a sobering experience.”

The clamor for a settlement reached new heights Tuesday afternoon when opening statements scheduled for 1:30 p.m. were inexplicably delayed and the jury was not brought back into the courtroom as scheduled.

After the deal was finalized at 2 p.m., attorneys quickly drafted the documents, which Davis signed minutes before entering the courtroom at 4 p.m., people familiar with the matter said.

Davis then announced that a resolution had been reached, surprising the audience and eliciting audible gasps from reporters inside the courtroom. Then he waived the jury — and the case was over.

An agreement was not easily reached. Roscoe, a world-renowned mediator who has even settled wartime disputes in the Balkans, told CNN it was one of the most difficult assignments he had ever faced.

“This is one of the most challenging cases because of the scale and visibility of the dispute,” he said, adding, “I would not take any aspect of this arbitration lightly.”

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