Offers of Judgment in Personal Injury Cases: Florida Supreme Court Clears Up Confusion Surrounding Offers of Judgment
On October 20, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court decided the case of Kuhajda v. Borden Dairy Co. of Alabama, LLC involving an offer of judgment made by the Plaintiff. The Kuhajda case involved personal injury claims sustained by Ms. Kahajda when she was struck by a Borden Dairy truck in an auto – trucking accident. The case was handled by Clayton Syfrett of Syfrett, Dykes & Furr at the trial level.
Because there is no basis in the law to do so, complaints in personal injury cases do not, under normal circumstances, make a request for the payment of attorney fees by the defendant. Personal injury attorneys only get paid when they secure a settlement or win at trial. And, when that happens the Plaintiff pays an agreed upon percentage of the settlement or jury verdict. Therefore, when an offer of judgment was filed in Kuhajda, the offer was made based on the intention to settle with the defendant the issues claimed in the pleadings. Since attorney fees were NOT requested in the complaint, attorney fees were NOT mentioned in the offer of judgment. Although the offer was reasonable, the insurance company for the defendant did not accept the offer and the case proceeded to trial. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict that exceeded the offer by more than 25%. As a result, the rule involving offers of judgment allowed for the Plaintiff to be reimbursed by the insurance company for the Defendant the attorney fees she incurred after the offer of judgment. However, the insurance company for the Defendant appealed the issue of the offer of judgment stating the offer was insufficient because it did not mention whether the offer included a resolution of attorney fees.
On appeal, the First DCA issued one of its illogical decisions in the matter holding that an offer of settlement that fails to address attorney’s fees is invalid even if no fees have been sought in the case. In other words, even though you are not settling an issue of attorney fees, an offer of judgment must mention fees just for the heck of it. The Supreme Court in Kuhajda saw things differently and quashed the 1st DCA decision. Instead, the Court approved a conflicting decision out of the 4th DCA holding that “an offer of judgment need not strictly comply with the requirements of Rule 1.442(c)(2)(F) when fees are not sought in the pleadings.” (See Bennett v. American Learning Systems of Boca Delray, Inc., 857 So.2d 986 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003.) In reaching this decision, the Court upheld the intent of the statute to provide a method for resolving conflicts short of going to trial, and having adequate repercussions against the party that fails to accept a reasonable offer of judgment.
Therefore, Borden Dairy was required to pay Ms. Kahajda the attorney fees she incurred for the work her attorney performed from the date of the offer of judgment at least through trial. But, should Borden Dairy have to pay her attorney fees incurred for all the appeal work it took to get the case through the 1st DCA and Supreme Court decision? After all, had Borden accepted the offer of judgment, the case would not have gone to trial and there would have been no appeal. Stay tuned. That issue has yet to be decided.