In a recent opinion, the Florida Supreme Court held that proposals for settlement were not ambiguous despite failing to address separate claims brought against codefendants. With its holding, the majority opinion reiterated its policy of discouraging the “nitpicking” of proposals for settlement, and expressed the court’s continued frustration that proposals for settlement seem to create more judicial labor, rather than encouraging settlement.
In Allen v. Nunez (Fla. Oct. 4, 2018), a plaintiff in a motor vehicle negligence case sued Gabriel Nunez, the driver of the car, as well as Jairo Nunez, the driver’s father who owned the car. The proposal to Gabriel stated that it was made by the plaintiff to Gabriel, and was for the purposes of settling all claims made by the plaintiff to Gabriel. The plaintiff served an identical proposal for settlement to Jairo. However, each proposal also stated that the proposal was “inclusive of all damages claimed by Plaintiff . . . .” In moving to strike the proposals for settlement, the defendants claimed that this provision was ambiguous as to whether one defendant’s acceptance of the proposal would have resolved the case against both defendants, or only against the individual defendant that accepted the proposal.
The trial court enforced the proposals for settlement. However, the Fifth DCA reversed, holding that the disputed provision was ambiguous because it could be reasonably interpreted to mean that the acceptance of the proposal by one of the defendants resolved the plaintiff’s entire claim against both defendants.
The Florida Supreme Court rejected the Fifth DCA’s analysis. The majority opinion first noted that a proposal for settlement need not be free of every possible ambiguity. Rather, only reasonable ambiguities should render a proposal for settlement unenforceable. Because proposals for settlement are intended to reduce judicial labor, courts are thus discouraged from “nitpicking” proposals for settlement in search of ambiguities. The majority opinion then analyzed several other opinions, reaching the conclusion that a proposal for settlement from one offeror to one offeree is enforceable even if the proposal does not address separate pending claims of other parties to the litigation. The majority reasoned that this rule is in furtherance of the contractual principle that the parties’ intentions must be determined from examining the entire contract, rather than separate phrases or paragraphs in isolation.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Pariente lamented the “exorbitant amount of litigation” that continues to be spawned by proposals for settlement. She reiterated that it is impossible to eliminate all ambiguity from a proposal for settlement. Thus, she urged courts to refrain from “nitpicking,” and encouraged courts to find a proposal unenforceable only if there is a reasonable ambiguity to its meaning.
Justice Canady wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Polston and Lawson. The dissenting opinion argued that the supreme court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because the 5th DCA’s opinion did not expressly and directly conflict with the cases discussed in the petitioner’s jurisdictional brief.