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Malpractice defendant wins but not entitled to attorneys fees

Florida Supreme Court quashes lower appeals court decision in malpractice case and holds that a proposal for settlement was invalid because it was an unapportioned joint offer. A plaintiff filed a medical malpractice suit against a limited partnership and a corporation, both doing business as “Florida Medical Center.” The complaint alleged that both entities “owned, operated, maintained, and controlled” the medical center, that the corporation was a general partner of the limited partnership, and that both entities were liable for negligent hiring and retention as well as vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of two doctors. During the course of litigation, the plaintiff was served with a proposal for settlement. Although the title proposal was titled “Defendant, Florida Medical Center’s, Proposal for Settlement,” the body of the proposal used “Defendants” in the plural, and repeatedly named both corporate entities, each “d/b/a Florida Medical Center.” The settlement amount offered was not apportioned between the two defendants. The plaintiff rejected the offer, and after the plaintiff lost at trial on his claims against those defendants, the defendants filed a motion for attorney fees and costs pursuant to §768.79, Florida Statutes and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442. The plaintiff argued that the proposal was invalid because it was a joint offer that did not apportion the settlement amount. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the proposal was valid because Florida Medical Center was the single offeror, and the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed. The Florida Supreme Court granted review based on conflict with cases that have held that the settlement must be apportioned when an offer of judgment is made to or by more than one party. The Court began its analysis by noting that Rule 1.442 must be strictly construed because it is in derogation of the common-law rule that each party in a case is responsible for its own attorney fees. In this case, the Court held, the plain language of the settlement offer itself demonstrated that it was a joint proposal. This was supported by the Amended Complaint, which treated the limited partnership and the corporation as separate parties, with separate but identically worded counts against each. The Court also noted that Florida law recognizes that a limited partnership is a distinct entity from its partners. Therefore, the proposal for settlement was invalid, and the defendants were not entitled to attorney fees and costs.
Pratt v. Weiss, __ So. 3d __, 40 Fla. L. Weekly S 201 (Fla. 4-16-2015).

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