Law school 101: a settlement is reached when an offer is extended and then accepted. It’s what law professors call a “meeting of the minds”. However, sometimes the “meeting of the minds” isn’t as clear as you would imagine.
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s denial of a motion to enforce a settlement because there was no binding settlement agreement pursuant to Georgia law. The plaintiff didn’t unequivocally and without variance accept the offer through her first insurer because the terms of the offer were undisputedly not accepted by her second insurer.
This case dealt with a motor vehicle wreck. The defendant driver ran a stop sign and struck another car in Stockbridge, Georgia in July 2018. The crash resulted in severe and ultimately fatal injuries. The at-fault driver had insurance policies through two automobile insurance companies, Progressive and ACCC. The attorney for the deceased’s surviving spouse and the administrator of her estate (collectively “the plaintiff”) sent an offer of compromise letter to Progressive and ACCC in accordance with O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1 (the “the offer”).
The parties disputed whether there was a valid acceptance of this offer and a binding settlement agreement. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to enforce settlement, and an appeal followed.
The offer was 39 pages with 30 footnotes. It said that it was a contingent offer that only obligated the plaintiff to settle if both insurance companies unequivocally accepted the offer. But ACCC never received the offer, so it never accepted the offer. In addition, this offer required acceptance of the agreement unequivocally and without variance.
Progressive sent a letter of acceptance agreeing to all terms, but the plaintiff refused to follow through on the settlement. She wrote “while we appreciate Progressive’s offer of compromise, for multiple reasons, we must respectfully decline at this time.” The letter explained that the offer letter to ACCC Insurance had been returned as undeliverable, and she was unwilling to compromise the claim with just Progressive.
After the plaintiff filed suit, the defendant moved to enforce the settlement agreement. She argued that she’d unequivocally accepted the offer. The plaintiff objected, arguing that the purported acceptance wasn’t identical to the terms of the offer and that it was contingent on ACCC’s acceptance, which did not happen.
The trial court denied the motion to enforce the settlement because, as the plaintiff said, the defendant didn’t unequivocally accepted the offer. The trial court also found that the defendant included additional language to the terms of the offer. In light of these findings, the trial court determined that the argument concerning the effect of ACCC’s non-acceptance of the offer was moot.
On appeal, the defendant contended that she unequivocally and without variance accepted the offer through Progressive’s response to it. As a result, she claimed that this created a binding settlement agreement.
The Court of Appeals Decision
Judge Ken Hodges of the Georgia Court of Appeals explained in his opinion that the version of O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1(a) – (c) in effect at the time of the offer said the following:
(a) Prior to the filing of a civil action, any offer to settle a tort claim for personal injury, bodily injury, or death arising from the use of a motor vehicle and prepared by or with the assistance of an attorney on behalf of a claimant or claimants shall be in writing and contain the following material terms: (1) The time period within which such offer must be accepted, which shall be not less than 30 days from receipt of the offer; (2) Amount of monetary payment; (3) The party or parties the claimant or claimants will release if such offer is accepted; (4) The type of release, if any, the claimant or claimants will provide to each releasee; and (5) The claims to be released.
(b) The recipients of an offer to settle made under this Code section may accept the same by providing written acceptance of the material terms outlined in subsection (a) of this Code section in their entirety.
(c) Nothing in this Code section is intended to prohibit parties from reaching a settlement agreement in a manner and under terms otherwise agreeable to the parties.
Judge Hodges noted that this law was amended in 2021 in a way which will “hopefully promote good-faith settlement of claims,” rather than litigation of both the underlying tort claim and a subsequent bad faith refusal to settle a claim.
The Court of Appeals said in an earlier decision that settlement agreements must meet the same requirements of formation and enforceability as other contracts. There’s no enforceable settlement between parties without mutual agreement. As such, an answer to an offer won’t amount to an acceptance, resulting in a contract, unless it’s unconditional and identical with the terms of the offer.
To constitute a contract, the offer must be accepted unequivocally and without variance of any sort. A purported acceptance of a plaintiff’s settlement offer which imposes conditions will be construed as a counter-offer to the offer to settle for the policy limits.
Judge Hodges found that regardless of whether Progressive complied with the terms of the offer, it was undisputedly not accepted by ACCC, and thus no settlement agreement was reached. And while this wasn’t the basis for the trial court’s ruling, it was argued by the parties below. Still, the Judge said the Court of Appeals could affirm the trial court’s decision in this case because “it is right for any reason.”
The plaintiff was unwilling to settle with just a single carrier, and Georgia law is clear that the plaintiff was permitted to be “the master of the offer” regardless of its reasonableness. Judge Hodges and the Court of Appeals said that nothing in Georgia law can permit the Court to force the plaintiff to settle on terms different from those proposed. The judgment was affirmed. Simmons v. Bates, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 16 (Ga. App. January 13, 2023).
Questions about a Settlement Offer in Your Case?
As you can see, settlement offers can be tricky. Work with the pros. Contact an experienced Atlanta personal injury lawyer Atlanta residents trust. We are happy to answer your questions. We offer free consultations to all prospective clients. Contact an Atlanta personal injury attorney at Tobin Injury Law 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423).