Various Florida statutes require court approval of wrongful death settlements and settlements involving minors (if the amounts received in the aggregate exceed $15,000; See Section 744.301(2), Florida Statutes (2017)). Does this mean that settlements in these situations cannot be negotiated to resolution by the parties without first obtaining court approval? The answer is that the parties can come to a binding agreement before presenting the deal to the court, with the understanding, however, that if the court rejects deal, the parties are unbound.
Berges v. Infinity Insurance Company, 896 So.2d 665 (Fla, 2004) is the leading case on the subject. It involved the wrongful death of a wife/mother and serious personal injuries to her minor child. After the surviving spouse/natural father of the minor child rejected the carrier’s late tender of its $10,000/$20,000 policy limits, the case proceeded to trial on the wrongful death claim and the personal injury claim. The jury returned a $911,400 verdict in favor of the estate on the wrongful death claim and a $500,000 verdict on the personal injury claim involving the minor. As a result of these combined verdicts, on the theory of bad faith the insured sought to make Infinity pay the full judgments. The jury found that Infinity acted in bad faith.
Infinity appealed the trial court’s judgment and the Florida Second District Court of Appeal reversed. According to the district court, “because Taylor [the surviving spouse/natural father of the minor] had neither been appointed personal representative of his wife’s estate nor been given court approval for the proposed settlement of his minor daughter’s claim, he was without authority to make a valid settlement offer to Infinity.” See Infinity Insurance Co. v. Berges, 806 So.2d 504, 508 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001). The Second District reasoned that the spouse/father’s offer to settle “was merely an expression of his intent to settle once he became authorized to make an offer.”
The Florida Supreme Court accepted the case on conflict jurisdiction. It found the district court’s reasoning flawed and remanded with instructions that the judgment of the trial court be reinstated. It explained that “the statutory schemes governing both minor and estate claims contemplate the completion of settlement negotiations prior to court approval. This scheme is consistent with the purposes of settlement, which are to simplify and shorten litigation, save costs to parties, and ease the burden on the courts by obviating the necessity of trial.” It went on to say that “the Second District erred when it concluded as a matter of law that Infinity could not be liable for bad faith towards its insured because Taylor did not make a valid offer to settle the case. Neither precedent nor the applicable statutes regarding settlements involving minors or on behalf of decedents require prior court approval for a valid settlement offer to be made.”
The bottom line is that persons with the authority to negotiate and settle these types of cases can do so without prior court approval.
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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.
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