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Palmentere Bros. Cartage Service, Inc. v. Copeland

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

July 29, 2019

Palmentere Bros. Cartage Service, Inc., Randy Jones, and Cherokee Insurance Company, Appellants,
v.
Heather Copeland and Phillip Copeland, her husband, Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Duval County. Thomas M. Beverly, Judge.

          E. T. Fernandez, III and Austin Brown of Fernandez Trial Lawyers, P.A., Jacksonville, for Appellants.

          Kansas R. Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette, PA, Jacksonville; Robert M. Klein and Andrew M. Feldman of Klein Glasser Park & Lowe, P.L., Miami, for Florida Defense Lawyers Association, Amicus Curiae in support of Appellants Palmentere Bros. Cartage Service, Inc. and Cherokee Insurance Company.

          Benjamin E. Richard, Curry Gary Pajcic, and William A. Bald of Pajcic & Pajcic, P.A., Jacksonville, for Appellee Heather Copeland.

          Philip M. Burlington and Adam Richardson of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, for Florida Justice Association, Amicus Curiae in support of Appellees Heather Copeland and Phillip Copeland.

          PER CURIAM.

         On September 21, 2010, a tractor-trailer truck owned by Palmentere Brothers Cartage Service, Inc., and operated by its employee, Randy Jones ("Appellants" or "PBCS"), collided with a vehicle being driven by Heather Copeland. Copeland successfully sued for damages. Appellants now raise five points urging reversal of the verdict and post-verdict rulings by the trial court. We affirm, except as to the order finding entitlement to section 768.79-based fees and expenses.

          I.

         Prior to trial, Copeland served PBCS with a proposal for settlement in the amount of $345, 000 pursuant to section 768.79, Florida Statutes (2010), and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442. In paragraph 2, the proposal stated:

This proposal is attempting to resolve Plaintiff's claim against Defendant PALMENTERE BROS. CARTAGE SERVICE, INC. and, if accepted, resolves all damages that would otherwise be awarded in a final judgment in the action as to PALMENTERE BROS. CARTAGE SERVICE, INC. only.

         Two additional documents were served with the proposal-one entitled "Release of Claims" and the other, "Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice." In paragraph 3 of the proposal, Copeland promised that in exchange for the above payment, she would execute the "Release of Claims" against PBCS, and file the "Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice" as to all claims against PBCS. Then, in paragraph 5, the proposal stated: "There are no claims for punitive damages in the case and none of the proposed settlement amount is for punitive damages." The "Release of Claims" provided that Copeland "releases and forever discharges [PBCS], from all claims and causes of action which [Copeland] ever had or now has against [PBCS], arising out of the accident of which is the subject of the above styled case." In its turn, the "Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice" stated: "[T]he above-styled cause is dismissed, with prejudice as to only [PBCS]."

         PBCS rejected the proposal and successfully moved for a continuance of the approaching trial. In the interim, Copeland filed a Fourth Amended Complaint that asserted, for the first time, a claim for punitive damages against PBCS. The jury returned a verdict awarding Heather Copeland $400, 000 in compensatory damages-reduced by ten percent based on comparative fault-but zero damages in favor of her husband, Phillip Copeland, on his loss of consortium claim. Additionally, the jury found PBCS individually liable for $1 million in punitive damages.

         Post-verdict, Copeland filed her "Motion for Taxation of Attorney's Fees and Investigation Expenses" predicated on the unaccepted proposal for settlement. Two hearings were held on the motion during which the trial court heard lengthy legal argument as to whether PBCS "beat" the proposal for settlement because, given the reduction in the compensatory damages due to her ten percent comparative fault, Copeland only recovered $360, 000- clearly not twenty-five percent more than the amount of the offer- and because Copeland had disclaimed punitive damages in her proposal-which disclaimer, according to PBCS, rendered the proposal for settlement ambiguous. The judge was not persuaded. In its ensuing order, the court announced that given the award of punitive damages, Copeland had recovered $1, 360, 000, an amount "significantly more tha[n] 25% greater than ...


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