FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY

VOLUME 41, NUMBER 39

CASES FROM THE WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 30, 2016

JOINT PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT SERVED ON OWNER OF VEHICLE WHOSE LIABILITY WAS SOLELY VICARIOUS WAS NOT REQUIRED TO BE APPORTIONED.

Saterbo v. Markuson, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2169 (Fla. 2nd DCA September 21, 2016):

In this case against a purely vicarious owner of a vehicle and the negligent driver, the plaintiff made a joint proposal for settlement for $1.5 million.  The jury’s verdict exceeded the amount, but the proposal was not apportioned, even though the owner’s liability was capped pursuant to section 324.021(9)(b)(3). 

The trial court concluded that the proposal was ambiguous and lacked particularity for failing to account for the vicarious owner’s capped responsibility, and therefore the trial court found it was impossible for the defendants to make a reasonable and informed decision about whether to accept or decline the proposal.

The Second District disagreed.  It found that the focus of the exception contained in rule 1.442(c)(4) is not whether a party is liable for the full amount of damages, but rather whether the claims against the party are direct or solely claims of vicarious or other forms of indirect liability.  Because the proposal in this case offered to settle all claims against both defendants, and the claim against the owner was based solely on his vicarious liability, apportionment was not necessary pursuant to rule 1.442(c)(4).

The court also rejected the argument that the proposal was ambiguous.  Here the proposal offered to settle claims against the driver and the owner, and as to the owner, the count was based solely on his status as the owner.  The driver however, was jointly and severally liable for the entire negligence claim.  Only the amount of damages was capped against the owner.

Merely because the proposal offered to settle all claims against both the driver and the owner did not make the offer ambiguous.  The defendant had argued that it was not clear what would happen since the owner was not obligated to pay the full amount of the proposal, but then noted that it would be impossible to eliminate all ambiguity in a proposal. 

Because the driver was liable for the entire amount of the damages, and because the owner would have had the right to seek contribution or indemnity from him for damages that the owner was obligated to pay over the statutory cap, there was no merit to the argument that the cap on the owner’s liability precluded the driver from making an informed decision.  At most, the driver was liable for the entire amount; and at least he was liable for the entire amount minus the amount owed by the owner under the cap.

Because the motion for fees was made solely against the driver, it was unnecessary to even analyze whether it was ambiguous as to the owner anyway.

The court concluded that under the “unique” facts of the case, the plaintiff was entitled to attorney’s fees under these circumstances.