As a general rule in Florida, each side in a civil lawsuit is responsible for paying their own legal fees and court costs. So even if you successfully sue someone, they are not then obligated to pay your attorney fees. There is, however, a critical exception known as the offer of settlement statute.
This statute provides that if the defendant in a civil case makes a settlement offer and the plaintiff does not accept that offer within 30 days, then the plaintiff must pay the defendant’s legal fees and costs if they do not obtain a final judgment that is at least 75 percent of that offer.
For example, let’s say that a plaintiff is injured in an auto accident and sues the defendant for damages. The defense offers to settle the case for $100,000. The plaintiff says no and goes to trial. If the jury awards the plaintiff less than $75,000, the defense can then ask for an award of attorney fees and related costs.
The reverse is also true. If the plaintiff offers to settle the case for a specific amount and the defense says no, then the plaintiff can ask for legal fees if they recover a judgment that is at least 25 percent higher than their offer. So if the plaintiff asked for $100,000 but won a jury verdict for at least $125,000, then the defense may be on the hook for the plaintiff’s legal fees.
Plaintiff Ordered to Pay Defendant’s Legal Fees Despite Winning Car Accident Claim
There are certain rules that must be followed to take advantage of the offer of settlement statute. A settlement offer must be made in writing and make specific reference to the statute. It also must “state with particularity” the relevant conditions, the dollar amount of the proposal, and any other nonmonetary terms. If an offer does not comply with these and other requirements, then the offeror cannot rely on it to justify an award of fees.
As the Florida First District Court of Appeals recently noted in a personal injury case, Burns v. Trunage, the “particularity” requirement simply means that an offer must contain language that is “sufficiently clear and definite to allow” the recipient to evaluate the proposed settlement “without needing clarification” from the offeror.
In the Burns case, the plaintiff sued the defendant for injuries sustained in a car accident. The defense offered a $60,000 settlement. The plaintiff rejected the offer. The final award of damages was just over $8,300, prompting the defense to file a motion for fees and costs under the offer of settlement statute. The plaintiff unsuccessfully argued that the $60,000 offer was ambiguous. As the First District explained, there were “no ambiguities” in the defendant’s offer that “could have reasonably affected” the plaintiff’s decision to accept or reject it.
Contact a Tampa, Florida, Personal Injury Attorney Today
While most personal injury claims do end with a negotiated settlement, it is still important not to enter such negotiations without proper representation. An experienced Tampa auto accident lawyer can help you with investigating your accident and advising you of the potential risks of accepting or rejecting a particular offer. So if you need to speak with an attorney, contact Trombley & Hanes today to schedule a consultation.