A man who successfully sued a hotel chain and several other defendants for third-party liability stemming from a criminal attack at a hotel has now won another victory for attorney’s fees before the Florida Supreme Court.
At issue was F.S. 768.79 and whether a trio of defendants – named as one entity in jury instructions – received sufficient offers of settlement to trigger the requirement that they cover plaintiff’s lawyer fees.
The statute allows that if an offer of settlement is made (by either side) and isn’t accepted within 30 days and the matter then goes to trial and is decided in favor of the opposite party (at least 25 percent less than the offer made by a defendant or 25 percent more for an offer made by plaintiff), the losing side has to pay the attorney’s fees of the other party. The goal is to encourage litigants to accept reasonable offers and thus reduce the time and expense of a trial. (It should be noted that most civil injury lawyers accept cases on a contingency fee basis, which means they are only paid a percentage of your total damage awards if you win, but nothing if you don’t win. An award of attorney’s fees means your financial obligation to your lawyer wouldn’t be taken out of your final damage award.)
The case of Anderson v. Hilton Hotels was a bit complicated, however, because it involved multiple defendants, including three that were referred to – without objection – as a single entity during jury instructions.
According to court records, plaintiff was the victim of an armed robbery, carjacking and shooting in the parking lot of an Embassy Suites hotel in Central Florida.
Subsequently, plaintiff and his wife filed a lawsuit against:
- The hotel;
- The investment company;
- The management company;
- The security company.
They alleged negligence and premises liability for each of them. The hotel chain was the parent company of Embassy Suites. The investment company was also owned by the hotel chain. The management company oversaw daily operations at the site where plaintiff was attacked. The security company was hired to make sure the site was safe. Plaintiff sought damages for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering. His wife sought damages for loss of consortium.
Three years after the incident, after plaintiff had filed his personal injury lawsuit, he made offers of settlement to each of the defendants:
- $650,000 to settle with the hotel;
- $100,000 to settle with the investor;
- $650,000 to settle with the management company;
- $300,000 to settle with the security firm.
Collectively, this amounts to $1.7 million.
His wife also issued an offer of settlement, asking for:
- $15,000 from the hotel;
- $15,000 from the investor;
- $25,000 from the management company;
- $25,000 from the security firm.
Collectively, this amounts to $80,000.
Prior to trial, plaintiff’s wife voluntarily dismissed her cause of action and her husband proceeded in the case alone. The companies rejected these settlement offers.
For ease of reference, the hotel, investor and management company were collectively referred to as “Embassy Suites,” while the security firm was named separately. This was true even though “Embassy Suites” was not a specifically named party in the complaint. Plaintiff didn’t object to this.
Jurors at a second trial (the first ended in mistrial) found “Embassy Suites” was 72 percent liable, while the security company was 28 percent negligent. Jurors awarded plaintiff a total of $1.7 million in damages. The “Embassy Suites” portion of that was $1.25 million.
Plaintiff then sought coverage of attorney fees, pursuant to F.S. 768.79. Trial court denied this as did the 5th District Court of Appeal. The 5th DCA determined that because plaintiff agreed to have the three entities treated as one by jurors and because the judgment obtained against this singular entity was actually less than the sum of the demands for judgment made against them (when the wife’s settlement offers were factored in).
The Florida Supreme Court quashed that decision. The court rejected the suggestion that plaintiff’s offer was actually a joint offer to settle the claims of both he and his wife.
The defense had argued that plaintiff served individual offers of settlement on each plaintiff, yet obtained a judgment only against a single entity and that judgment couldn’t be compared to the individual offers made. Alternatively, defense argued plaintiff offered to settle with the collective “Embassy Suites” defendants for $1.4 million, yet only obtained from them $1.25 million – which doesn’t meet the statutory 25 percent threshold.
Courts had previously held that the Second District held it was improper to combine separate offers and then compare them to a judgment obtained when evaluating a party’s entitlement fees. The state supreme court noted that at the very least, plaintiff’s offer to the security firm alone created the right to attorney’s fees (he offered to settle for $300,000 and was awarded $456,000). Further, because the offers can’t be aggregated, the court was obliged to compare the amount awarded to the single entity ($1.25 million) with the settlement offers. That meant the award was 189 percent in excess of the offers issued to the hotel and the management company and 1,225 percent in excess of the offer made to the investment firm.
Plaintiff, therefore, was entitled to attorney’s fees.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Anderson v. Hilton Hotels, Nov. 3, 2016, Florida Supreme Court
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