Florida Appellate Court Holds Settlement Agreement was Sufficient to Support Award of Legal Costs to Defendant

In a recent case, a Florida appellate court discussed the level of sufficiency that the terms of a settlement agreement must have in order to be enforced. The case, Walley v. Tyson, involved a car accident that took place during September 2010, resulting in the death of one of the drivers involved in the crash. Shortly after the accident, the other driver filed a complaint in Florida state court against the deceased driver’s estate, seeking compensation for damages suffered as a result of the accident.

After initiating the litigation, the defendant’s estate made a settlement proposal to the plaintiff in the amount of $12,000. The agreement included a term that would release the defendant’s estate from any liability surrounding the crash, but it reserved the plaintiff’s right to seek damages from any individual other than the personal representative of the estate. A term in the proposed settlement also indicated that the terms were negotiable.

The personal representative for the defendant’s estate did not respond to the proposal, and the matter proceeded to trial. At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict in the amount of $13,000 for the plaintiff. The court reduced the verdict by roughly $3,800 to reflect payments that the plaintiff received through insurance coverage.

According to Florida Statute Section 768.79, if the plaintiff’s judgment at trial is more than one-quarter less than a settlement offer made by the defendant prior to trial, then the court can require the plaintiff  to compensate the defense for his or her legal costs. Following the entry of the jury’s verdict, the court ruled that the plaintiff’s judgment was over 25 percent less than the decedent’s estate’s settlement offer and awarded legal costs to the decedent’s estate.

The plaintiff moved to strike the estate’s offer of settlement on the basis that it was vague, ambiguous, and unenforceable. In reviewing the plaintiff’s motion, the court at first disagreed with the plaintiff but ultimately granted the plaintiff’s motion on the basis that the offer was ambiguous. According to the court, the language that the estate used in the proposal failed to provide the plaintiff with a clear explanation of the liability release.

The decedent’s estate appealed, and the Florida Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the explanation of the proposed release was sufficient to inform the plaintiff of its terms, including both the identity of the person whose liability was being released and the specific event in question. According to the appeals court, a settlement proposal will be deemed unenforceable if the parties have the ability to interpret its terms in more than one way. The fact that a party states his or her willingness to enter negotiations about the terms does not always mean that the agreement is too vague for enforcement.

If you or someone you love has suffered injuries due to another person’s negligence, the personal injury lawyers at Lusk, Drasites, and Tolisano can help. We provide experienced, compassionate, and aggressive legal representation to accident victims throughout Naples, Fort Myers, and Cape Coral and offer a free consultation to help you learn about the right and options available to you. Call us now at 1-800-283-7442 or contact us online.

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