In Thompson v. Estate of Maurice, a young man was unfortunately killed while riding as a passenger in an automobile. Following the collision, the decedent’s parents demanded payment from the liability insurance company that provided coverage for the vehicle. The letter included a settlement offer that expired in one month. The insurer responded with a counteroffer that was nearly identical but requested that the young man’s parents sign a release of all claims against the vehicle’s owner and the liability insurer as a condition of settlement. The release was never signed, and no money exchanged hands.
About two years later, the decedent’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the estate of the individual who was driving the vehicle at the time of the deadly accident and the owner of the car. In their complaint, the decedent’s parents claimed that the driver caused their son’s death by negligently operating the automobile. They also asserted vicarious liability claims against the owner of the car.
The car’s owner and the driver’s estate claimed the lawsuit was barred because the parties previously entered into a settlement agreement. The decedent’s parents then filed a motion for summary judgment against the driver’s estate. According to the parents, a settlement was not reached because there was no meeting of the minds. In addition, the parents stated no settlement occurred because they did not receive any compensation from the driver’s insurer prior to filing suit.
The defendants in the case responded by filing a partial motion for summary judgment. In their motion, the defendants claimed the insurer’s letter constituted acceptance of the parents’ settlement offer. They also filed a motion to enforce the purported settlement agreement. Following a hearing, the trial court granted both of the defendants’ motions and denied the parents’ motion for summary judgment. The young man’s parents next appealed their case to Florida’s Fourth District.
On appeal, the decedent’s parents argued the lower court committed error when it granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants because the parties never mutually agreed to the terms of a settlement. After stating summary judgment is only appropriate when there are no material facts or issues in dispute, and one party is clearly entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the appeals court said the burden for demonstrating this is on the moving party. In addition, a court that is considering a motion for summary judgment is required to draw any inferences in favor of the non-moving party. The court added that any questions of fact must be submitted to a jury.
Next, the Fourth District stated Florida settlement agreements are subject to general contract law. The court said although the law favors settlement agreements, it must be clear that the terms of such an agreement were mutually agreed upon by each party for it to be valid. The appellate court added that an indemnification and release is a crucial term, and without evidence of acceptance “an essential element of the agreement is not established.” According to the court, the insurer did not accept the parents’ settlement offer but instead made a counteroffer. Since mutual assent to each of the elements of the settlement offer was in dispute, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the wrongful death case for trial.
If you were hurt or lost a treasured family member in a South Florida car accident, you may need a skilled lawyer on your side to help you protect your rights. To schedule a free, confidential consultation with a veteran Miami personal injury attorney today, do not hesitate to contact Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. online or give us a call at (305) 448-8585.
Thompson v. Estate of Maurice, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 4th Dist. 2014
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