Florida’s offer of judgment statute, Florida Statutes section 768.79, is a common technique for any litigator who wants to place additional risk on the plaintiff. The statute provides that if a defendant in a civil suit files an offer of judgment that is not accepted by the plaintiff within 30 days, the defendant shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs from the date of filing if the judgment is one of no liability or the judgment obtained by the plaintiff is at least 25 percent less than such offer. A Florida appellate court has affirmed that this statute applies with equal force to an insurer’s request for appellate fees.
In State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Caribbean Rehabilitation Center, Inc., No. 3D19-366, 2019 WL 3675137 (Fla. 3d DCA Aug. 7, 2019), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal held that the Eleventh Judicial Circuit “departed from the essential requirements of law” by denying State Farm’s motion for appellate attorneys’ fees under Florida Statutes section 768.79. In Caribbean, an individual was injured in an automobile crash and sought treatment from Caribbean Rehabilitation Center Inc. The insured then assigned his rights to personal injury protection benefits to Caribbean, who in turn sought relief from State Farm. State Farm denied coverage due to the patient’s failure to attend numerous scheduled examinations under oath. Caribbean sued, and State Farm prevailed on the merits and won an award of fees and costs under section 768.79.
The Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, sitting in its appellate capacity, affirmed the judgment. However, the court denied State Farm’s motion for appellate attorneys’ fees pursuant to section 768.79 without elaboration. State Farm sought a writ of certiorari from the Third District Court of Appeal quashing the decision.
The Third District Court of Appeal granted the writ and quashed the Eleventh Judicial Circuit’s order. The appellate court held that the circuit court “departed from the essential requirements of law in not conditionally granting State Farm’s motion for appellate attorney’s fees based on the same statute” it used to award trial court fees. The Third District Court of Appeal stated that “[i]n so doing, the Circuit Court violated procedural due process, resulting in a miscarriage of justice.”
This case illustrates the value of Florida Statutes section 768.79 as a tool for insurers to discourage unnecessary litigation and promote settlement.