In a 2013 wrongful death case, the court considered the appeal of a defendant after his motion to enforce a policy limits settlement of $25,000 was denied. The case arose when a teenager died in 2010 after a car moved over the center line and crashed into the car in which the teen was a passenger.
A claims handler for the insurer of the striking car offered the policy limits of $25,000 to the decedent’s parents. The offer required the parents to sign a limited release and a copy of the death certificate before the insurer would pay.
The limited release stated that the payment was not to be construed as an admission and warranted that there were no medical liens or expenses under which the parents would be held liable under any law and that, if any such claims were asserted, the parents would indemnify and defend the insurer from all claims.
The parents’ lawyer sent a letter that agreed to execute the limited liability release in exchange for a payment of policy limits. The claims person called the lawyer’s office and told the lawyer’s assistant that the same offer had been extended to the parents already and that the insurer accepted the offer. She also sent letters to the lawyer confirming the settlement and asked the clients to sign the release.
However, shortly after, the lawyer wrote to the claims person and told her that the clients had told him to reject the counteroffer. On the same day, she sent another letter with a different, abbreviated release confirming settlement.
The claims person tried to talk to the lawyer over the phone, but was only successful 10 days after the insured defendant was served with a lawsuit by the parents. The lawyer told the claims handler that a limited liability release hadn’t been sent to the clients, but instead a final release had been given to them.
The defendant filed a motion to enforce the settlement. The court denied the motion, ruling there was no meeting of the minds on the essential terms of the settlement and so there was no enforceable agreement.
The defendant appealed, claiming that agreement was reached when the attorney had sent the first letter accepting the earlier offer by the insurer or when the insurance claims person accepted the offer from the plaintiffs. Either way, the defendant argued, the release terms were $25,000 and a limited liability release. The parents responded to the motion by telling the claims person that they had not agreed to sign the release that included provisions denying the defendant’s liability and requiring them to indemnify the insurer.
The appellate court explained that compromises are usually upheld. However, a trial court is limited to terms the parties had actually agreed upon. Without mutual agreement, there isn’t an enforceable contract. This rule of mutual agreement applies to settlement agreements as well as other contracts. An answer to an offer must be unconditional and match the terms of the offer, with no additional conditions, in order to be considered acceptance.
The appellate court ruled that the lawyer’s letter didn’t accept the insurer’s offer because the offer conditioned any valid acceptance upon the executed release. The claims person had accepted the parents’ offer, however, with no language conditioning acceptance upon execution of a specific release. Merely including a release form unacceptable to the plaintiff did not alter the terms of settlement. The judgment was reversed.
If a loved one dies due to another driver’s negligence, you may be able to recover compensation for your losses. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.
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