Florida law allows the parties in civil litigation to make an “offer of judgment,” which is a proposal to settle the case presented to the other party. If the plaintiff makes such an offer, the defendant has 30 days to accept. If the defendant rejects or fails to accept the offer within that time frame, the plaintiff may recover reasonable costs and attorney’s fees if the judgment is at least 25% greater than the offer.
Section 768.79, Florida Statutes, sets forth the requirements of the offer. Such offers must be in writing and indicate they are being made under the statute. They must name both the party making the offer and the party to whom the offer is made. The offer must state the total amount of the offer and provide the amount offered to settle punitive damages claims with particularity.
Section 1.442 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure provides further clarification of the requirements for an offer. These requirements include naming the “party or parties making the proposal…,” stating any conditions with particularity, and stating “the amount and terms attributable to each party” when the offer is a joint proposal. The Florida Supreme Court recently decided what happens when an offer names only one of the plaintiffs as the party making the offer and does not attribute the amounts to the plaintiffs, but does clearly state that both plaintiffs will dismiss their claims if the offer is accepted.
In Audiffred v. Arnold, a wife and husband filed suit against the driver of the other vehicle involved in an automobile accident. The wife’s claims were based on her own injuries and damage to the vehicle. The husband’s only claim was for loss of consortium. After the suit was filed, the plaintiff served the defendant with an offer of judgment. The proposal indicated that it was made by the wife. It proposed to settle all claims brought by both plaintiffs and any other claims that arose from the accident. The proposal stated that both plaintiffs would dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice. The proposed settlement amount was listed as $17,500. The proposal did not provide any allocation of the proposed settlement amount between the claims.
The defendant did not accept the proposal within 30 days, so it was deemed rejected. The case proceeded to trial. and the plaintiff was awarded a jury verdict of $26,055.54 for past medical expenses and nothing for permanent damages or loss of consortium.
The plaintiffs moved for an award of costs and attorney’s fees based on the offer of judgment. The defendant moved to strike the offer as defective. The defendant argued that the offer purported to settle the claims of both plaintiffs but stated it was filed only on behalf of the wife. He argued that an unapportioned settlement offer that would settle the claims of multiple parties is improper under Florida law.
The trial court denied the defendant’s motion and awarded the plaintiffs costs and fees. The trial court found that the proposal for settlement was “unambiguous and legally sufficient.” The trial court also noted that both plaintiffs were represented by the same attorney.
The defendant appealed, and the First District reversed, finding that the offer was a joint proposal because it indicated that both parties would dismiss. The district court found that the proposal was invalid because it did not apportion the settlement between the plaintiffs as required for joint proposals under the rule.
The Florida Supreme Court accepted the case to address conflicts with prior decisions. The Supreme Court pointed out that it had previously held that the requirement that a joint proposal state the amount and terms attributable to each party is to be strictly construed. This requirement is intended to allow the party or parties receiving the offer to fully evaluate it. The court also noted that a defendant may be more willing to settle a loss of consortium claim than the personal injury claim.
The rule also requires the offer to state any conditions “with particularity.” The court noted that an offer would not meet this requirement if it contained any ambiguity that could reasonably affect the decision.
Here, the plaintiffs had separate claims. If the defendant had accepted the offer, it would have resolved all claims by both plaintiffs. The Florida Supreme Court found that the offer was a joint proposal that was required to apportion the proposed settlement amount between the plaintiffs. The offer was ambiguous and failed to state the conditions with particularity. The Florida Supreme Court held that an offer from a single offeror to a single offeree that would resolve claims by or against parties who are not offerors or offerees constitutes a joint proposal that must include apportionment of the amounts and terms.
Offers of judgment are an important part of Florida automobile accident cases, but, as this case illustrates, to be effective, they must comply with very strict requirements regarding their content. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are experienced in handling all aspects of a car accident case, including offers of judgment. Call us at 800-747-3733 to schedule an appointment to talk about your case.
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