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Georgia Court Reviews Evidence of Settlement Negotiations in Auto Accident Case

handshake-detail-1532854In many personal injury lawsuits, opposing parties are able to resolve a court action through mutually satisfactory settlement negotiations. Claims arising from automobile accidents are no exception. Depending on the circumstances surrounding a car accident, including any allegations of negligence and the necessary supporting evidence, settling a case is often a wise course of action. But there are important legal steps to follow when embarking on a settlement agreement. And it is equally important to understand the optimal point at which to settle, and for what amount. The best course of action is to consult with an injury attorney from the Atlanta area who handles car accident claims and is fully aware of the local laws affecting your particular case.

Under Georgia law, a settlement agreement must adhere to the rules applicable to contract formation and enforceability. Specifically, one party’s offer must be accepted without equivocation, or the response will be considered a “counter-offer” instead of an acceptance. Essentially, there must be a “meeting of the minds” on the key terms. In a recent case, Cone v. Dickenson (Ga. Ct. of App. 2016), the court reviewed evidence of the circumstances surrounding an oral settlement agreement to determine its terms.

Here, the plaintiff brought an action for damages, alleging that the defendant negligently hit her vehicle, causing her to suffer severe physical injuries as well as emotional and mental distress. During the discovery phase of the case, the parties discussed a settlement. Later, the defendant filed a motion to enforce a settlement agreement, alleging that counsel for both parties reached an oral agreement. Specifically, the defendant contended that he agreed to pay the plaintiff $25,000 in return for an executed “full general release” and “dismissal with prejudice.”

The defendant’s attorney sent the plaintiff’s counsel an email confirming this alleged oral agreement, and later sent a settlement draft and full general release. Counsel also filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement, despite the plaintiff’s refusal to sign the document. The plaintiff drafted and signed a limited liability release, and “joined” into the court action her uninsured motorist (“UM”) carrier. The plaintiff objected to the defendant’s motion and filed her own to enforce a settlement with the limited liability release. Significantly, the plaintiff’s counsel testified that as soon as he received the general release, he quickly contacted defense counsel regarding the “mistake.”

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to enforce the settlement and denied the plaintiff’s motion, concluding that the parties had agreed to settle for $25,000 in exchange for a general release. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the court erred by so ruling, and by failing to consider her cross-motion and evidence allegedly supporting her position that they agreed to settle with a limited liability release (enabling the plaintiff to go forward with her claim against the UM carrier).

The court of appeals reversed the decision, pointing out that whether the parties agreed to a general or limited release is an issue for the jury to determine in this case. The court cited the plaintiff’s attorney’s affidavit as sufficient evidence to raise a question regarding an essential element of the settlement agreement.

The plaintiff will now have an opportunity to present her position regarding the release of liability. Clearly, understanding how the law affects every aspect of a negligence case can dramatically affect the extent of one’s recovery for any pain and suffering. If you have been injured in a car accident, you are encouraged to contact an experienced injury attorney as soon as possible. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been hurt as a result of another’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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