A man who suffered severe personal injuries when he was attacked by a gunman in a Florida hotel parking lot successfully sued the hotel, the hotel management company, the hotel investment firm and the hotel security provider for $1.7 million. That verdict came after he extended several pre-trial settlement offers to each of the various defendants – which collectively totaled $1.7 million. The question before the Florida Supreme Court in Anderson v. Hilton Hotels Corp. was whether plaintiff was entitled to collect attorney’s fees from the defendants per F.S. 768.79.
We should start by explaining first of all that in the vast majority of personal injury cases, civil attorneys accept their payment on a contingency fee basis. That means they don’t require any money to be paid upfront by the client. Instead, the attorney is only paid if the client wins. In those cases, they have an arrangement to accept a portion of the damages awarded (usually about 30 percent, though it can vary depending on the complexity of the case). That said, there are some instances in which your attorney fees can be paid by the other party (you get to keep the entire damages awarded while the defendant pays your attorney). This is allowed per the aforementioned statute when a plaintiff extends an offer of settlement that is not accepted within 30 days and then goes on to win at trial for an amount that is in excess of that offer by 25 percent or more.
So that brings us to the Anderson case. He offered to settle for a collective $1.7 million and ultimately won $1.7 million at trial. However, the state supreme court ruled that he still qualified to have his attorney’s fees covered. To understand why, we have to delve a bit deeper into the facts of the case.
According to court records, plaintiff was attacked in a hotel parking lot by a man who robbed him, stole his car and shot him. He suffered severe injuries. He later sued the aforementioned defendants for negligence. Specifically, he alleged premises liability. The defendants had not ensured adequate security on site when there was a foreseeable risk of harm. His wife also filed claims for loss of consortium.
Plaintiff issued an offer for settlement to each of the defendants. Those offers were:
- $650,000 for the hotel;
- $650,000 for the hotel management;
- $100,000 for the hotel investor;
- $300,000 for the hotel security firm.
These offers were rejected. His wife also offered to settle and that offer too was rejected, though wife later agreed to voluntarily dismiss her claims.
The matter went to trial (twice, in fact, as the first trial ended in mistrial).
In the second trial, the hotel, management company and investment firm were collectively referred to as one entity: Embassy Suites. This was despite the fact that no such defendant was named in the complaint. Plaintiff never objected to this singular use and jurors in determining liability apportioned this singular entity with 72 percent liability, without spelling out how much each of those separate entities should pay. Embassy Suites was ordered to pay $1.25 million, while the security firm was ordered to pay $450,000.
Plaintiff then sought compensation for attorney fees. This request was turned down by both the trial court and the 5th District Court of Appeals. The reasoning was that plaintiff’s settlement offer didn’t meet the statutory criteria because damages awarded didn’t exceed 25 percent of his offer.
The Florida Supreme Court, however, disagreed. The court held that the entitlement to attorney’s fees hinges on the “judgment obtained,” as opposed to the verdict form read by the jury. The statute does not indicate that a plaintiff has to obtain a judgment from a designated party in order to be entitled to attorneys’ fees. The entitlement depends only on a sufficient offer and a judgment obtained. In this case, the court ruled, plaintiff made a sufficient offer. Further, the court agreed with legal reasoning from the 2nd DCA that held it improper to combine separate offers of settlement and then compare them to the judgment when determining a party’s right to attorneys’ fees.
Personal injury victims in Miami may call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Anderson v. Hilton Hotels Corp. , Nov. 3, 2016, Florida Supreme Court
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