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Georgia Court Applies Principles of Contract Law to Car Accident Settlement

In some personal injury cases, plaintiffs find themselves addressing issues of contract law as well as traditional notions of negligence in order to achieve a recovery of damages. For instance, in a car accident case, once the injured party establishes that another driver was negligent and caused the accident and resulting injuries, the plaintiff will often seek to recover from that driver’s insurance company. This is where principles of contract law may come in. It is important to understand the interplay between these two vastly different legal notions and how invoking certain provisions can affect your claim for damages. An experienced Atlanta injury attorney, who handles car accident cases on a daily basis, would be best situated to assess and prepare your case for the ideal recovery under the circumstances.

Once the injured party establishes liability under negligence principles, his or her attorney may send a letter to the insurance carrier, essentially offering to settle the claim. The letter may outline the plaintiff’s damages as well as other terms necessary to settle the dispute. The insurance company’s response, either accepting or rejecting the offer, could effectuate anything between a full settlement of the case or a complete rejection of the terms. But much is dependent on the language of the respective communications, each party’s intent, and whether the parties reached a “meeting of the minds” under principles of contract law.

In a recent case, Tillman et al. v. Mejabi (Ga. Ct. of App. 2015), Mr. Tillman was injured in a car accident with Funmilayo Mejabi. He sought medical treatment for his injuries. Through their attorney, the Tillmans sent a letter to Mejabi’s automobile insurance carrier, Progressive Mountain Insurance Company, listing medical and other expenses, as well as a loss of consortium claim by Mrs. Tillman. The letter indicated that it was “an offer to compromise a disputed claim,” and although damages exceeded $70,000, the Tillmans demanded $25,000 (the policy limit) in a full and final settlement of the matter. The letter made no mention of a release, indemnification, or other terms typically included in such negotiations.

Progressive wrote back, clearly identifying the offer letter, and included a check in the amount of $25,000. The letter further included a general release of all claims and agreements. The Tillmans’ attorney returned the check and purported to reject the “counteroffer” of $25,000 with the general release. The parties could not agree upon a limited release. The Tillmans then brought this lawsuit, seeking damages from the car accident. Progressive and Mejabi moved to enforce the terms of the settlement agreement. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that the parties agreed to the $25,000 in full and final settlement of the claims. The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the Insurance Company’s response to their offer did not amount to an acceptance, since it contained material terms that were not incorporated in their offer.

The court of appeals rejected the plaintiffs’ argument and affirmed the decision. The court found that there was a “meeting of the minds” on the essential terms, despite the Insurance Company’s inclusion of a general release with terms deemed unacceptable by the plaintiffs’ counsel. According to the court, it is well-settled law in Georgia that merely including a release form that is unacceptable to the plaintiff does not change the fact that a meeting of the minds occurred with respect to the terms of the settlement.

The court ordered Mr. Tillman to execute a release of claims in order to effectuate the parties’ settlement. This case nicely illustrates the intricacies of contract law and how such issues can affect the outcome of a personal injury case. If you have been injured in an automobile accident due to another’s negligence, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Atlanta injury attorney as soon as possible. Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling personal injury cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another’s negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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