On May 3, 2013, the Florida Supreme Court accepted for review two cases involving the apportionment of joint proposals for settlement: Arnold v. Audiffred,98 So. 3d 746 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012) (Fla. Sup. Ct. Case No.: SC12-2377) and Pratt v. Weiss, 92 So. 3d 851 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012)(Fla. Sup. Ct. Case No.: SC12-1783). In Arnold, the district court declared the proposal unenforceable; in Pratt, the district court found the proposal enforceable. The governing rule of procedure in Florida provides that “[a] joint proposal shall state the amount and terms attributable to each party.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.442(c)(3). The rule excuses apportionment “when a party is alleged to be solely vicariously, constructively, derivatively, or technically liable.” Id. 1.442(c)(4).
In Arnold, the husband and wife plaintiffs sued for damages sustained as a result of a car accident. The wife sued for her personal injuries and damages to the car and the husband sought loss of consortium damages. The wife served a proposal for settlement seeking to resolve the following claims: “Any and all claims Plaintiffs have brought against the Defendant set forth in the Complaint in the above-captioned case and any other claim or claims that may have risen as a result of the subject incident set forth in Plaintiffs’ Complaint, including attorney’s fees or costs.” After a trial, the jury awarded the wife her past medical expenses, but did not award her anything for permanent damages or to her husband for his loss of consortium claim. The plaintiffs moved for attorney’s fees pursuant to the proposal for settlement. The defendant moved to strike the proposal, arguing that it was a joint proposal that should have apportioned the amount attributable to each plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion and granted the motion for attorney’s fees and costs.
The First District Court of Appeal stated that proposals for settlement are governed by the rules for interpretation of contracts and that a proposal should be looked at as a whole and construed “according to its own clear and unambiguous terms.” Accordingly, while the first two paragraphs of the proposal for settlement stated that the wife was the sole offeror, the proposal, as a whole, offered that both the husband and the wife would dismiss their claims against the defendant upon the defendant’s acceptance. As such, the proposal for settlement was a joint proposal and it should have apportioned the settlement amount between the two plaintiffs.
In Pratt, the plaintiff sued numerous defendants for medical negligence, including FMC Hospital, Ltd., d/b/a Florida Medical Center, and FMC Medical, Inc., d/b/a Florida Medical Center. The complaint alleged that these two entities “owned, operated, maintained, and controlled” Florida Medical Center. The complaint also alleged that FMC Hospital, Ltd. was a limited partnership and that FMC Medical, Inc. was a general partner of Florida Medical Center. While the complaint named the two entities as defendants, each was alleged to be responsible for the negligence of a single entity, Florida Medical Center.
The two defendants submitted a proposal for settlement to the plaintiff, identifying the “party” making the proposal as both defendants and seeking to resolve “all pending matters between the plaintiff and the named defendants.” The settlement agreement and release attached to the proposal required the plaintiff to also release any “agents” of the two defendants.
At trial, the plaintiff and FMC Hospital, Ltd. stipulated that the proper party in interest was FMC Hospital, Ltd. d/b/a Florida Medical Center. The jury found in favor of FMC Hospital, Ltd., which then moved for attorney’s fees pursuant to the proposal. The trial court found the proposal enforceable because it had been made by a single entity, the hospital, and was unambiguous.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued, among other things, that the proposal was unenforceable because it did not apportion the offer between the two named defendants. The defendants countered that they were treated as a single entity throughout the litigation, they were represented by the same lawyer, they filed a single answer, and they were listed as FMC Hospital, Ltd., a Florida limited partnership d/b/a Florida Medical Center, on the verdict form. The appellate court noted that the singular nature of the entity was most evident in the parties’ stipulation that FMC Hospital, Ltd. was the only proper defendant. The appellate court also disagreed with plaintiff that the release was ambiguous because it required the plaintiff to release the hospital’s agents; the court noted that the language provided for the release of only unnamed agents of the hospital. The appellate court further noted that the plaintiff’s suggestion that the release applied to future unknown claims was debunked by the language in the release that restricted future claims to “the injuries and damaged alleged” by the plaintiff. The appellate court affirmed the trial court decision, finding that the defendants’ failure to apportion the proposal did not render it unenforceable.
Both cases are currently being briefed before the Florida Supreme Court. The Court has dispensed with oral argument in both cases.