The Week In Torts – Cases from November 12, 2021
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FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY
VOLUME 46, NUMBER 45
CASES FROM THE WEEK NOVEMBER 12, 2021
TRIAL COURT ERRONEOUSLY CONCLUDED THAT PLAINTIFF’S PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT WAS AMBIGUOUS, AND ERRONEOUSLY DENIED PLAINTIFF ATTORNEY’S FEES
Ehlert v. Castro, 46 Fla. L. Weekly D2361 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov. 3, 2021):
The plaintiff successfully prevailed in a personal injury case, and then sought attorney’s fees based on her proposal for settlement.
The defendants argued that in the paragraph addressing the claims that would be resolved if the proposal for settlement were accepted, the defendants contended that the proposal required them to release any unknown future claims, noting that the plaintiff was a tenant of the defendants at the time, and that defendants could have had a future cause of action against the plaintiff for unpaid rent, and the broad paragraph would have subsumed that type of claim. The trial court agreed.
The Fourth District reversed. It reminded us that Florida law does not require the elimination of every ambiguity in assessing a proposal for settlement.
The court observed that the proposal for settlement stated with particularity the claims to be settled, and that the third paragraph stated it was going to resolve all claims pled by the plaintiff against the defendants as a result of the subject accident, clearly referring to the premises liability claim for injuries involved in the case.
The court rejected the trial judge’s finding that the first paragraph could include landlord/tenant claims. That paragraph said it would release only claims which could be included in a final judgment and viewing the agreement as a whole, the only claims that could be included in a final judgment would be those made in the underlying action; not future claims.
The court reaffirmed that a settlement proposal should be sufficiently clear and definite to allow the offeree to make an informed decision without any clarification, and the trial court should not nitpick proposals for ambiguities. Considering there were no other pending claims between the parties, the condition of settlement was simply the entry and satisfaction of a final judgment or notice of voluntary dismissal of the suit, and it required no general release.
Because the proposal for settlement as a whole did not contain an ambiguity that could reasonably have affected the defendant’s decision to accept or reject the proposal, it was valid and the trial court should have ruled to enforce it.
WHEN THE INCIDENT LACKS A SIGNIFICANT RELATIONSHIP TO THE CONTRACT CONTAINED IN THE ARBITRATION CLAUSE, EVEN A BROAD ARBITRATION PROVISION CANNOT BE ENFORCED
Dewees v. Johnson, 46 Fla. L. Weekly D2356 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov. 2021):
The plaintiff purchased a home from the developer in a new community pursuant to a purchase contract, which contained a section noting that all “post-closing claims, disputes and controversies” (explicitly identifying personal injury claims) would be subject to binding arbitration.
Eighteen months after entering into that contract, the plaintiff suffered injuries while riding her bike through the neighborhood to visit the warranty office. The roadways through the community were still under construction by the developer, and there was missing asphalt needed to level the pavement, which caused an elevation change and caused the front tire on the plaintiff’s bicycle to hit the lip, further causing her to fall.
When the plaintiff sued the developer for both negligence and negligent failure to warn, along with a breach of its non-delegable duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition, the developer moved for arbitration pursuant to the contract. The developer argued that the claims fell under the arbitration provision, because the purpose of the plaintiff’s presence and related fall was to visit the warranty office to report a claim under the dwelling warranty portion of the contract.
In response, the plaintiff asserted that the arbitration provision applied only to disputes relating to the purchase and sale of her home, not to tort claims stemming from injuries suffered on the developer’s property two months after purchase.
The Fourth District quoted familiar language stating that any doubt about the scope of an arbitration agreement should be resolved in favor of arbitration, and noted that the arbitration provision in this case was very broad.
However, in deciding whether a particular claim is covered by a broad arbitration provision, the trial judge must determine whether a significant relationship exists between the claim and the agreement contained in the arbitration clause, regardless of the legal label attached to the dispute.
Here, the plaintiff asserted that under Seifert, her claims did not have a significant relationship to the purchase contract. This case involved tort claims based on the developer’s alleged breach of its non-delegable duty to maintain its premises in a safe and reasonable manner for invitees, as well as its duty to warn pedestrians and bicyclists using the incomplete roadways of unknown and inherent hazards, which the developer was or should have been aware of.
The claims plaintiff brought did not refer to or implicate contractual duties created by the purchase contract or dwelling warranty. Instead, the duties asserted were those owed to the general public, and did not arise out of the contractual relationship.
Thus, despite the arbitration provision being broad, and despite it specifically including personal injury claims, there was a lack of nexus between the dispute and the purchase contract such that it would not be fair to presume that an injury claim brought based on a breach of duty owed to all pedestrians and bicyclists, could not be subject to the arbitration provision contained in the contract.