Make sure you separate your offers of judgement if you have more than one plaintiff…or defendant. Several months ago, the Florida Supreme Court issued two rulings which strictly interpreted the state’s offer of judgment statute. The Court ruled that joint offerors of a settlement must comply with the law’s apportionment provision to recoup attorneys’ fees and costs.
In the first case, Audiffred v. Arnold, the state’s high court agreed with the lower court’s decision to reverse an award of costs and attorneys’ fees to two plaintiffs in an automobile collision suit because the settlement offer that was rejected was offered by just one of the plaintiffs but would have resolved both plaintiffs’ claims and failed to separate the proposed settlement amount between the two plaintiffs. In the underlying case, Valerie Audiffred and her husband Robert Kimmons sued Thomas Arnold for damages resulting from the Audiffred’s injuries in an automobile accident, vehicle repairs and loss of consortium. The plaintiffs offered to settle the suit for $17,500, but the offer was ignored, according to the opinion. At trial, a jury awarded Audiffred $26,000 for past medical expenses but nothing for permanent damages or to Kimmons for loss of consortium (damages for the loss of spousal support). Audiffred and Kimmons asked for attorneys’ fees and awards based on the offer of judgment statute, but Arnold argued that the proposed settlement was defective because it was only filed on behalf of Audiffred but offered to settle both of their claims. The trial court disagreed, but the First District Court of Appeal reversed the award of attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs and ruled the settlement proposal was invalid. The high court agreed with the 1st District Court of Appeal. “The proposal had the effect of settling claims by two plaintiffs against one defendant,” the state Supreme Court said. “Under the required strict construction of the rule and the statute, this ultimate effect of the offer requires that it be treated as a joint proposal.”
In a second case, Pratt v. Weiss et al., the Florida Supreme Court overturned the award of attorneys’ fees and costs to two hospital entities that were targets of a medical malpractice case because the defendants had not properly separated the settlement amount offers to the plaintiffs in a rejected joint offer. The court said that though it may have been difficult to apportion the settlement based on their respective liability, “these are not recognized legal elements to disregard or circumvent the rule that requires apportionment of a settlement amount where a proposal is presented by multiple parties.”Under Florida’s offer of judgment statute, the offering party or parties can recover reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees if a settlement offer is not accepted by the other party within 30 days and the offering parties eventually prevail. In this underlying case, the Pratts brought a medical malpractice suit filed in 1998 against multiple defendants, including FMC Hospital Ltd. and FMC Medical Inc., which owned, operated and controlled Florida Medical Center, according to the complaint. The plaintiff, Ancel Pratt Jr., rejected a $10,000 settlement offer from FMC then lost on the claims against the hospital at trial. Post-trial, FMC asked for attorneys’ fees and costs under the offer of judgment statute, but Pratt opposed the motion, arguing that the entities were joint offerors and had failed to apportion the amount offered as required by law. The trial court awarded FMC the costs and fees, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed that decision. The Florida Supreme Court said that FMC could not recover its costs and fees because the offer clearly was a joint proposal with two defendants and failed to comply with the requirements of the law. “To the extent any alleged liability of FMC Hospital and FMC Medical could be viewed as coextensive, this does not constitute an exception to the apportionment requirement,” the high court said. “Even where no logical apportionment can be made, it is nonetheless required where more than one offeror or offeree is involved.”