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Florida Supreme Court Reverses Award of Attorney Fees to Defendants Following Defense Verdict in Medical Malpractice Suit – Pratt v. Weiss

LawThe settlement of lawsuits is encouraged under Florida law, so much so that the so-called “Florida Settlement Rule” states that a party who refuses a settlement offer can be held liable for the attorney fees and costs incurred by the maker of the offer if the maker is successful at trial. Of course, there are many stipulations that come with the rule, and the issue of whether or not the rule was complied with is a frequent source of litigation in and of itself.

In Pratt v. Weiss, a person filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against multiple defendants in 1998, alleging that the purported owners of the Florida Medical Center were liable for negligence in the hiring and retention of two doctors and that they were vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of such doctors.

At some point after the suit was filed, two of the defendants tendered a $10,000 settlement offer to the plaintiff. The offer was declined. Judgment was eventually entered for the defendants pursuant to a jury verdict.

The Defendants’ Post-Trial Motions

Two of the defendants filed a motion for attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to the Florida Settlement Rule. The plaintiff argued that, since the defendants were joint offerors, their proposal did not comply with the settlement rule in that it did not apportion the amount offered. The trial court agreed, finding that there had been only a single offeror such that apportionment was thus not required. The trial thus awarded attorney fees and costs to the defendants.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The appellate court affirmed, and the plaintiff sought further review.

The Issue to be Decided on Appeal

Did the settlement offer at issue comply with the requirements of Florida Statute § 768.79 and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442?

The Opinion of the Florida Supreme Court

The court first noted that the district court had found that the offer was made on behalf of a single hospital entity. Because of a conflict with other cases to the effect that apportionment of a settlement amount is required when an offer of judgment is made by or to multiple parties, review was proper.

After carefully considering the settlement offer at issue, the court reversed the decision of the lower courts. The court concluded that, although a single entity’s name was mentioned in the title of the offer, the plain language of the proposed agreement showed that it was, in fact, a joint proposal.

The Court’s Rationale

The court found that the text of the settlement proposal unambiguously referred to the defendant offerors in the plural, not in the singular. Thus, under the clear wording of the proposal, two offerors – not a single offeror, as alleged by the defendants – presented the offer. The proposal was thus invalid under the applicable statute and rule because it did not apportion the settlement amount between the two offerors.

To Speak to an Experienced South Florida Injury Attorney

If you have been hurt by what you believe may have been an act of medical negligence, you should speak with an experienced Florida medical malpractice attorney concerning the merits of your case. The legal team at Cohn & Smith welcomes the opportunity to review your case. To schedule a free initial consultation, call us at (954) 431-8100. Do not delay in making this important phone call, since Florida law has strict time limitations for the filing of personal injury lawsuits. We serve injured people through South Florida, including Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and North Dade County.

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