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Ambiguous “Florida Settlement Rule” Offer Yields No Attorney Fees Despite Subsequent Successful Verdict – Government Employees Insurance Company v. Ryan

settlement propIf you have been involved in an automobile accident, you would prefer to settle your case outside court rather than proceed to trial. This is a common sentiment because, of course, a settlement puts money into the hands of a crash victim considerably faster than a jury verdict does.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, it takes a lot of time to prepare a case for trial. Discovery and pre-trial procedures can take months or, in complex cases involving multiple parties, even years. Also, there can be a long wait for a trial date if the court has a backlog of pending cases. There is also the chance that the opposing party may file an appeal, prolonging the case even longer.

Florida Settlement Offers and the Possibility of Attorney Fees

To encourage settlements, the State of Florida has a statute and an accompanying rule (Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442) to the effect that, if one party makes a written settlement offer and the offer is refused, the party who made the offer may be awarded a portion of his or her attorney fees and costs if a verdict is ultimately granted in his or her favor. Of course, there are several conditions to the rule, including the requirement that the verdict must exceed the settlement offer by at least 25%.

The plaintiff in the recent case of Government Employees Insurance Company v. Ryan made a settlement offer and, ultimately, received a verdict that exceeded the offer by more than 25%. Unfortunately, however, she didn’t receive any attorney fees because of a problem with the settlement offer’s particularity.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in the case was a woman who was injured in a car wreck. She had uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage with the defendant, Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO). Relying on the Florida settlement rule, she tendered a proposal for settlement of her claim. However, the offer was somewhat confusing in that it read, “One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($50,000). … The total amount of this settlement shall not exceed $50,000.”

GEICO refused the woman’s offer, and the case was tried in front of a jury. The woman was awarded over $195,000. Accordingly, she filed a motion asking that GEICO pay her attorney fees from the time of the settlement offer forward. GEICO opposed the motion, arguing that there was a patent ambiguity in the woman’s settlement offer, and thus she did not qualify for attorney fees and costs under the rule. The woman responded that GEICO was well aware of the meaning of her offer because her policy limits were $50,000. The trial court accepted the woman’s argument and awarded her attorney fees and costs.

On Appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal

On further review by the appellate court, the trial court’s decision was reversed. According to the court, the Florida settlement rule must be strictly construed, and the patent ambiguity of the proposal rendered it unenforceable under the rule.

To Have an Experienced South Florida Accident Attorney Review Your Case

As this case illustrates, lawsuits and even proposed settlement offers can be very complicated. If you are looking for a compassionate, experienced legal team to help you with your automobile accident case, call the law firm of Cohn & Smith at (954) 431-8100. We serve clients throughout the Fort Lauderdale area, including in North Dade County, Weston, and Pompano Beach.

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