In Audiffred v. Arnold, 2015 Fla. LEXIS 803, Valerie Audiffred and her husband, Robert Kimmons, filed an action against Thomas Arnold that arose from an automobile collision. In the complaint, Audiffred sought damages for her injuries and for vehicle repairs. Kimmons sought damages based upon loss of consortium. On April 29, 2010, a settlement proposal was served upon Arnold, which provided a settlement amount of $17,500 dollars, but did not apportion the settlement amount between Audiffred and Kimmons.
Arnold constructively rejected the proposal when he did not respond within thirty days. After a jury trial, a verdict was entered against Arnold in the amount of $26,055.54 for Audiffred’s past medical expenses. However, the jury did not award anything to Audiffred for permanent damages or to Kimmons for the loss of consortium claim. Audiffred and Kimmons then filed a motion that sought an award of costs and attorney’s fees pursuant to section 768.79, Florida Statutes (2014), the offer of judgment statute, and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442. Arnold moved to strike the settlement proposal on the basis that it was defective because it was filed only on behalf of Audiffred, but offered to settle the claims of both Audiffred and Kimmons. Arnold asserted that unapportioned settlement proposals that resolve the claims of multiple parties are improper, even where one claim is a loss of consortium claim filed by a spouse. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to strike and entered an amended final judgment that awarded Audiffred and Kimmons costs and attorney’s fees. Arnold appealed.
On appeal, the First District reversed the award of costs and attorney’s fees. The district court concluded that the settlement offer constituted a joint proposal because, when read as a whole, it clearly expressed that Audiffred and Kimmons would dismiss their claims against Arnold with prejudice upon acceptance. The First District held that the proposal was invalid for failure to comply with section 768.79 and rule 1.442 because it did not apportion the settlement amount between Audiffred and Kimmons.
The Supreme Court of Florida granted review of Arnold based upon express and direct conflict with decisions that hold a proposal for settlement made by a single offeror to a single offeree which upon acceptance will dismiss the entire action, including claims for or against a party who is neither an offeror nor offeree, is not an undifferentiated “joint proposal” that renders the offer invalid and unenforceable.
The Supreme Court held that the proposal for settlement did not comply with section 768.79 and rule 1.442. The complaint in this case involved separate claims by Audiffred and Kimmons. Although the proposal lists Audiffred as the sole offeror, if accepted by Arnold, the offer would have resolved all pending claims by both Audiffred and Kimmons. Thus, the proposal had the effect of settling claims by two plaintiffs against one defendant. Under the required strict construction of the rule and the statute, this ultimate effect of the offer requires that it be treated as a joint proposal. Accordingly, for the proposal to be valid, it was necessary for the amount offered to be apportioned between Audiffred and Kimmons. The proposal, however, does not describe what portion of the amount offered would be applicable to Audiffred, and what portion would be applicable to Kimmons. As written, the proposal does not clearly convey whether the settlement amount would be divided evenly between Audiffred and Kimmons, whether one plaintiff would take nothing while the other would receive the full amount offered, or whether some measure between the two was intended. Although Audiffred asserts that the intent of the proposal was for Kimmons not to receive any portion of the settlement amount for his loss of consortium claim, the actual language of the proposal is not at all clear on this matter. Instead, the proposal states only that upon payment of $17,500, Audiffred and Kimmons would “dismiss this lawsuit, with prejudice, as to the Defendant.”
The Supreme Court concluded that due to this patent ambiguity, the offer lacked sufficient clarity to permit Arnold to reach an informed decision with regard to the settlement amount against the pending claims by Audiffred and Kimmons. Accordingly, the settlement proposal was fatally ambiguous and invalid because it failed to state with particularity this critical condition of the offer. Therefore, the First District properly reversed the award of costs and attorney’s fees to Audiffred and Kimmons.