The Week In Torts – Cases from October 14, 2022
The pendulum on PFSes is not swinging back
FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY
VOLUME 47, NUMBER 41
CASES FROM THE WEEK OCTOBER 14, 2022
DESPITE SOME SUGGESTIONS OF AMBIGUITY, COURT FINDS PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT TO BE “UNAMBIGUOUS”
Burns v. Turnage, 47 Fla. L. Weekly D2024 (Fla. 1st DCA Oct. 6, 2022):
The defendant served the plaintiff with a proposal for settlement for $60,000.00. The jury awarded approximately $40,000.00, and after set-offs, the trial court entered judgment for approximately $8,000.00.
The plaintiff asserted that the proposal was ambiguous.
In it, the defendant proposed to settle all damages that would otherwise be awarded in a final judgment against the defendant, as to the motor vehicle accident that occurred on the date and the place of the subject accident. The proposal further advised that it was inclusive of costs, that it required a general release and that the plaintiff would dismiss her claims with prejudice against the defendant. The offer did not include any amount for punitive damages and there was no claim for punitive damages.
Attached to the proposal was a release asking the plaintiff to release the defendant for any and all claims, demands, damages, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever for injuries known and unknown, including any claim for punitive damages arising out of the subject accident.
The release also asked the plaintiff to acknowledge that the proposal represented a full and final compromise of any and all claims she had, with the express purpose and precluding any further or additional claims arising out of the subject accident.
The court found the language was unambiguous, and that it was sufficiently clear and definite enough to allow the plaintiff to evaluate the settlement offer without needing clarification. The proposal offered to settle all damages and tracked the language of Rule 1.442(c)(2).
The proposal contained two non-monetary terms: the need for a release and a dismissal with prejudice. However, the plaintiff could not have reasonably believed that the offer was intended to resolve only “some” of the plaintiff’s potential claims stemming from the accident, or to resolve any claims not factually related to the accident. Because the release language did not contain an invalid obligation to relinquish rights on future cases based on facts that had not yet occurred, it was valid.
Additionally, the release that included the defendant’s parents should not have been confusing, since the plaintiff initially named the father as being the defendant owner in the case, and the language referring to the vehicle’s owner could have only referred to the parents.
Finally, even though the plaintiff’s complaint did not seek punitive damages, and the proposal did not include any money for punitive damages, when the release included punitive damages, the plaintiff could not have reasonably thought that the settlement would resolve all claims except one for punitive damages, especially because punitive damages is a sanction tethered to an underlying cause of action.
The court rejected what it characterized as an attempt to “introduce ambiguity after the fact into a straightforward proposal for settlement,” and affirmed the order awarding attorney’s fees.
WRIT OF MANDAMUS GRANTED COMPELLING THE TRIAL COURT TO CONDUCT AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING ON ATTORNEY’S FEES AND COSTS PURSUANT TO A PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT
Griffin Windows and Doors v. Pomeroy, 47 Fla. L. Weekly D2013 (Fla. 3rd DCA Oct. 6, 2022):
Mandamus relief requires that the petitioner demonstrate a clear legal right to the performance of a ministerial duty.
Once the trial court establishes entitlement to attorney’s fees (in this case, pursuant to proposal for settlement), the trial court must conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the amount of the award in the event that the entitled party wants the hearing to go forward.
The trial court has jurisdiction to conduct such a hearing upon the entry of the final judgment in the underlying case, and unless the parties agree, the court has no discretion not to conduct the evidentiary hearing on fees.