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Archive for the ‘General Liability’ Category

Insuring Against Rule 68 Offers of Settlement

Posted on: June 28th, 2018

By: Matt Grattan

One tool defense lawyers in Georgia frequently use to induce settlements is an offer of settlement under O.C.G.A. 9-11-68.   Rule 68 allows either party to a tort action to serve a written offer to settle the claim, so long as the offer is made within a certain time and satisfies several other elements under the statute.  If a Rule 68 offer is properly made by a defendant and rejected, that code section allows a defendant to recover its post-rejection attorney’s fees and expenses from a plaintiff in the event the plaintiff does not recover at least 75% of the offered amount at trial.

It is easy to see how the fee-shifting provision in Rule 68 can provide defense attorneys with leverage during settlement negotiations.  Simply put, it forces plaintiffs to put some skin in the game.  Because paying the defendant’s attorney’s fees and costs can significantly reduce or even eliminate a plaintiffs’ award at trial (and in turn a plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees), plaintiffs may be more inclined to settle rather than face such risks at trial.

The fee-shifting benefit from Rule 68, however, could potentially be diminished by companies like LegalFeeGuard.   Established in Florida in 2012 to combat that state’s offer of settlement statute, LegalFeeGuard has recently started offering insurance policies in Georgia that cover attorney’s fees and costs under O.C.G.A. 9-11-68.  LegalFeeGuard offers no-deductible policies with limits as low as $10,000 and as high as $250,000.   Policies are triggered by a judgment in a bench trial or the return of a verdict in a jury trial, and are available to plaintiffs and defendants for a wide array of cases, including personal injury, breach of contract, and intentional torts.

What does the availability of fee-shifting insurance mean for defense lawyers and their clients?  LegalFeeGuard recently launched in Georgia (and the author is unaware of any other similar companies), so it is tough at this point to determine what kind of impact fee-shifting insurance will have on litigation in Georgia.  But this is certainly a development for lawyers to keep an eye on (particularly since LegalFeeGuard claims on its website to have sold over 1,000 policies in Florida) as such insurance may persuade more plaintiffs to roll the dice and take their case to trial knowing the downside risk of paying fees and costs is reduced, if not altogether eliminated.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Matt Grattan at [email protected].

Shortening the Statutory Limitations Period in a Residential Lease

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018

By: Jake Daly

Every state has statutes or rules governing the time within which various types of claims must be filed.  In Georgia, the general rule is that a personal injury claim must be brought within 2 years of the date the injury occurred.  Is this an immutable rule, or can it be changed by contract?  Thanks to a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, we know that a statutory limitations period may be shortened by a provision in a residential lease and that a contractual limitations period of 1 year is valid and enforceable.

The plaintiff in Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC allegedly tripped and fell on a crumbling portion of a curb in the parking lot of the apartment complex where she lived.  The incident occurred on March 3, 2014, and the plaintiff filed the lawsuit on March 3, 2016.  Under Georgia’s statute of limitations for personal injuries, the lawsuit would have been timely filed.  However, the lease contained a provision that required any lawsuit against the owner and/or manager to be filed within 1 year of the occurrence giving rise to the claim.  Based on this contractual limitations provision, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant, which was represented by Sun Choy and Jake Daly of Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP.

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision on May 1, 2018.  The plaintiff’s sole argument on appeal was that a contractual limitations provision should not apply to claims that do not arise out of the contract.  Because the plaintiff’s claim was based on Georgia’s premises liability statute, not the lease, she contended that her claim was subject to the statutory limitations period of two years.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the absence of a relationship between the lease and the claim was irrelevant because the contractual limitations provision in the lease applied by its own terms to “any legal action.”  There being no statute or public policy prohibiting the shortening of a statutory limitations provision in a contract, the Court of Appeals concluded that the contractual limitations provision in the lease was valid and enforceable and that, therefore, the plaintiff’s claim was time-barred.

We know from this decision that a contractual limitations provision of 1 year is valid and enforceable, but the Court of Appeals did not address the limit of how short such a provision can be.  However, we believe that a contractual limitations provision of 6 months could be valid and enforceable because that is the statutory deadline in Georgia for providing ante litem notice of a claim for money damages to a municipality.  Regardless of where the limit will be drawn by future cases, owners and managers of residential rental property should consider including in their leases a contractual limitations provision of no longer than 1 year.  For assistance with drafting such a provision that will withstand scrutiny by the courts, as well as other provisions that may help limit liability, please contact Jake Daly at [email protected] or (770) 818-1431.

A House of Cards: Stacking Inferences to Prove Liability

Posted on: May 10th, 2018

By: Melissa Santalone

A Florida appellate court recently reaffirmed Florida’s state law prohibition against stacking inferences in personal injury cases with a reversal of a $1.5 million verdict in a slip-and-fall case against Publix.  In Publix Super Markets, Inc. v. Bellaiche, 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 4233 (March 28, 2018), the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s denial of a directed verdict to Publix at the trial of a case involving slip-and-fall accident at a Miami-Dade County store, holding that proof of liability via the stacking of inferences is impermissible, in contrast to federal case law.

The plaintiff in the case, a 70-year-old woman, alleged she slipped and fell on water in an aisle at a Publix store that she did not observe before the fall.  After she fell, she testified she saw a Publix employee holding a mop nearby, but no evidence was offered that the mop was wet or that water from the mop ever made contact with the ground.  The manager of the store testified the employees at the store used dry rayon mops to clean the floors, and not pre-soaked cotton ones.  Video evidence also showed the only janitor on duty at the time, the only employee whose duty it was to mop the floors, was using a broom and dust pan just prior to the plaintiff’s fall.  The Third DCA noted in its decision that the plaintiff had the burden to prove that Publix either created the dangerous condition that caused her fall or had actual or constructive knowledge of it, an opportunity to correct it, and it failed to do so.  At trial, the plaintiff acknowledged she was not proceeding on a constructive knowledge theory, but on the theory that Publix created the dangerous condition or had actual knowledge of the water on the floor via its employee with the mop.  The jury sided with the plaintiff at trial and awarded her more than $1.5 million, and the trial court denied Publix’s motion for a directed verdict.  In Bellaiche, the Third DCA reversed the lower court’s denial of the motion for directed verdict.  The Third DCA held that “[a] jury may not stack inferences to determine that a party had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, nor is the mere possibility of causation sufficient to establish liability.  If the only way that a jury can find that a party was negligent is by stacking inferences, ‘then a directed verdict is warranted.’”

In other forums, however, the stacking or pyramiding of inferences is permissible, including in the courts of the Eleventh Circuit, the federal courts in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.  In Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321 (1982), the Eleventh Circuit found that “[a]ccording to federal law there is no prohibition against pyramiding inferences; instead all inferences are permissible so long as they are reasonable.”  Moreover, in Daniels, the Eleventh Circuit further noted that a directed verdict is not required in instances where the jury may choose between allowable inferences including instances where the inference championed by the plaintiff is no more likely than other possible inferences.  The takeaway here is that litigants in personal injury cases must consider the inferences they or their opposition will ask a jury to draw and whether their chosen forum will allow the stacking of inferences to prove liability.  In some venues, like in Florida state courts, more concrete proof of liability is required.

If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact Melissa Santalone at [email protected].

Not Just for Trust Fund Babies Anymore

Posted on: May 3rd, 2018

By: Bryce M. Van De Moere

Even with the existence of the Affordable Care Act, the preferred way to get health benefits is still through your employer.  Health insurance packages have become an integral part of employee compensation.  As employers continue to offer health benefits to their employees, liability for employers has also increased exponentially; not only in terms of how to shoulder the premium increases brought on by the utilization of an aging workforce but also exposure to legal action brought on by perceived deficiencies in the quality of the benefits.

Welfare Benefit Plans are described in Title 1 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) which governs any plan, fund or program that provides (among other things), “medical, dental, prescription drugs, vision, psychiatric, long term health care, life insurance or accidental death or dismemberment benefits.” Regulation of these plans is federally governed and penalties for violation of the regulations can be severe. Further complicating an already difficult area, many employers are approaching health insurance carriers and contracting with them directly.  They are a signatory to a contract to offer benefits to an employee group and as such can be liable for claims made by their employees.   As such, when representing employers, especially those in the public sector, such as Municipalities and School Districts who have a unionized employee base with whom they are required to collectively bargain, it is of vital importance that those employers be shielded from liability, not only from their own employees but also from the penalties associated with failure to comply with state and federal laws that govern those benefit plans and the agencies that enforce those penalties.

One option employers should consider is banding together and pooling their employees by forming or joining a VEBA, or Voluntary Employee Benefit Association. A VEBA is an Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(7) Trust that is generally tax exempt and defined as “a mutual association of employees providing certain specified benefits to its members or their designated beneficiaries which may be funded by the employees or their employer.”  VEBA’s are legal entities that take the place of the individual employer.  Much like incorporation protects your personal assets, a VEBA can protect the employer’s business.

A VEBA is guided by a Board of Trustees made up of the member employers (and sometimes union representatives.)  The Trust is now the signatory to the contract.  The employer and their employees become a part of a much larger group or “pool” buying benefits in bulk which helps promote price stabilization and increases negotiation power. The Board of Trustees is also allowed to delegate the responsibilities of the Trust, which means they can hire a Trust ERISA counsel and Trust auditor to ensure regulatory compliance and a Trust Benefit Administrator to manage the claims of the benefit plan members.  This further shield’s the employer from responsibility and liability.

This is just one of the vehicles available for the management of employee benefit plans. If you have questions about this or other options available under the Internal Revenue Code, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Court Ruling Highlights Importance of Policy Language

Posted on: April 11th, 2018

By: America Vidana

In Mt. Hawley Insurance Co. v. Tactic Security Enforcement, Inc., No. 6:16-cv-01425 (M.D. FL. 2018), U.S. District Judge Paul Byron of the Middle District of Florida recently denied an insurance company’s motion for summary judgment, in which it relied on an exclusion to deny coverage to its policyholder. The policyholder and restaurant establishment, Que Rico La Casa Del Mofongo, had two negligence lawsuits filed against it for allegedly failing to prevent violent incidences from occurring on its premises.

The insurer denied coverage per an exclusion included in the policy prohibiting “operations involving bars, taverns, lounges, gentlemen’s clubs and nightclubs.” The Court, however, found that the insurer failed to clearly define the terms cited in the exclusion. It noted that the policyholder’s establishment was interchangeably referred to as a “restaurant,” and at other times as a “lounge.” Consequently, because the terms “bars, “taverns,” “lounges,” and “gentlemen’s clubs” were undefined, it deemed the entire exclusion as imprecise and inapplicable—unilaterally denying the insurer’s summary judgment.

The Court’s decision in Mt. Hawley significantly reinforces the principle that precise policy language is required before an insurer can deny coverage based on an exclusion. It also highlights the importance for a policyholder to read the entire policy to ensure there are no broad exclusions that could potentially bar coverage.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact America Vidana at [email protected].