Florida’s Third District Refuses to Award Costs and Attorney’s Fees in Bungled Premises Liability Case: Design Home Remodeling Corp. v. Santana

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Design Home Remodeling Corp. v. Santana, a man was apparently injured when he fell while visiting a property owned by a condominium association. About 18 months later, the man and his wife filed a premises liability lawsuit against the association. As part of his complaint, the man alleged the association negligently maintained the property. The association responded by arguing a non-party was responsible for any negligent maintenance that existed on the property. The couple then amended their complaint to add the non-party as a defendant in the premises liability lawsuit. The couple also claimed that the newly added defendant failed to warn the injured man about a slippery substance that existed on the floor of the condo association’s property.

Sixty days later, the new defendant served the couple with a proposed settlement offer under Section 768.79 of the Florida Statutes. This section states that a plaintiff may be held liable for a defendant’s attorney’s fees and costs if the plaintiff refuses to accept a settlement offer within 30 days in situations when the final judgment is rendered in favor of the defendant or is valued at least 25 percent below the refused settlement offer. Neither member of the couple accepted the defendant’s settlement offer.

About three years later, a trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Summary judgment is only appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact is in dispute and a party to the lawsuit is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Following the trial court’s order, the defendant asked the court to award the company attorney’s fees and costs. The court denied the defendant’s motion based on Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442(b). Under the rule, a defendant may not make a settlement offer to a plaintiff before 90 days has passed since the lawsuit was commenced. The defendant’s motion for rehearing was denied, and the company appealed the trial court’s refusal to award attorney’s fees and costs to Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals.

After reviewing Section 768.79 of the Florida Statutes, the court stated the law does not provide a timeframe during which a settlement proposal may be offered. The Third District then said Rule 1.442(b) implements the relevant statute and provides citizens with the proper procedure that must be followed. The court added that the applicability of the statute and rule must be strictly construed by Florida courts because they go against the common-law principle that a party must pay for its own attorney’s fees.

Next, the appellate court addressed the defendant’s argument that its failure to wait 90 days before offering the plaintiffs a settlement was a mere technical violation that should not affect the company’s rights. In support of the defendant’s position, the company offered two cases that predated a Florida Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed that both Rule 1.442 and Section 768.79 must be strictly construed. The Third District stated the Florida high court’s decision clearly rejected the idea that a party’s failure to comply with the terms of the rule and statute was a mere technical violation.

In addition, the court said although the couple’s lawsuit was initially filed much earlier, the defendant issued its settlement offer a mere 60 days after it was added as a party to the lawsuit. Because of this, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s settlement offer to the plaintiffs was premature and affirmed the trial court’s decision denying the company an award for attorney’s fees and costs.

If you suffered a personal injury as a result of a Miami property owner’s negligence, you need a skilled advocate who understands the law on your side. The experienced premises liability lawyers at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. may be able to help.  To discuss your rights with a knowledgeable attorney today, please call Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Design Home Remodeling Corp. v. Santana, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 3rd Dist. 2014

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