If you’re injured in a Georgia car accident, it is imperative to work with an experienced plaintiff’s attorney, even if you believe a settlement can be reached with an insurer. It is important to retain an attorney before discussing the matter with the other driver’s insurer at all, and certainly before entering into settlement negotiations. In a recent Georgia case, the defendant’s vehicle hit the plaintiff’s vehicle. On appeal, the defendant argued that the lower court had erred in denying his motion to enforce a settlement agreement by prohibiting evidence and questioning about a treating doctor’s financial interest in the case, and by excluding evidence and questioning related to the treating doctor’s credibility and potential bias.
After the plaintiff claimed she’d been injured by the defendant’s car, she hired an attorney. Her attorney sent a settlement demand for the policy limits of $25,000 to the defendant’s insurer. On top of asking for payment, the settlement demand said it was contingent on receipt of certain sworn affidavits about how much insurance coverage was to be had and a limited release. If these conditions weren’t met and payment wasn’t made, the settlement demand would be withdrawn in 30 days.
The defendant’s insurer called to say it would pay policy limits. However, the insurer couldn’t’ issue the check right away and had to wait until defense counsel told her to do so. The plaintiff’s attorney said he would wait to hear back.
In 2013, the defense attorney emailed the plaintiff’s attorney to settle and asked about the status of liens. About an hour later, the plaintiff’s attorney sent instructions for the payment and said the liens were being negotiated and would be paid from the recovery. Further clarifications ensued about liens.
A week later, however, the plaintiff claimed the defendant had failed to timely respond to the settlement demand so that payment of police limits would be rejected. The insurer tendered a $25,000 settlement check and proposed limited liability release to the plaintiff’s attorney. The plaintiff’s attorney rejected the tender on the grounds that the delays were unreasonable. The plaintiff sued, alleging negligence and negligence per se.
The defendant moved to enforce the settlement. The motion was denied because the offer had set a specific date for expiration. What happened subsequently wasn’t enough to constitute offer and acceptance.
Before trial, the plaintiff moved to exclude suggestions that her attorney referred her to the doctor who did her neck surgery. The defendant argued the jury could consider the doctor’s financial interest in the case and possible bias. The plaintiff’s motion was granted and the court found the referral not relevant. The doctor would be entitled to collect on what was owed regardless of how the case turned out and the lien was just security on a debt. The jury awarded a verdict of $700,000 against the defendant. The defendant appealed.
On appeal, the defendant argued it was an error to deny his motion to enforce the settlement. He argued the court should’ve considered parol evidence to clarify ambiguity in the email communications. He claimed that after the first letter, the plaintiff had accepted a counter offer in the email.
The appellate court reasoned it was clear the initial offer wasn’t accepted in time since it hadn’t been accepted in the manner it specified. It found that the email’s language didn’t constitute a counter offer that was accepted and created an enforceable agreement. Case law has found that if an offer is so vague it’s impossible for a court to determine its meaning, the acceptance can’t result in an enforceable agreement.
For a contract to be valid, an agreement needs to be expressed explicitly and plainly. The contract can’t be enforced if its terms are incomprehensive or incomplete. There are times when ambiguities can be explained by the facts. But information that is extrinsic can’t be used to supply what is necessary to create a valid contract. In this case, the amount of the proposed settlement was a necessary element and it was missing from the purported counter offer.
The defendant also argued that it was a mistake for the lower court to exclude specific evidence and questions that affected the treating doctor’s bias or credibility. He argued the lien was relevant because the doctor was more likely to be paid what he was owed if the plaintiff was awarded damages. The appellate court agreed with the defendant that he should have been allowed to cross-examine the doctor about his financial interest in the case. Generally, juries are entitled to consider a witness’s financial interest in a case.
The defendant also argued he should have been allowed to ask about the attorney’s referral of the doctor because it was relevant to the witness’s bias and credibility. However, the appellate court found that there was no abuse of discretion by the lower court in excluding the evidence.
Stephen M. Ozcomert possesses over 20 years of experience representing people injured in car accidents 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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