Reversal: No valid settlement in Crown Point bicycle crash

Years after three Crown Point bicyclists sued each other for negligence after a crash, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed an order and implementation of a settlement agreement when it found the parties had never come to a valid agreement.

While cycling on a paved Crown Point bike path in August 2012, Ana Martins collided with tandem riders Richard and Diana Hill. The Hills sued Martins asserting negligence and claiming they suffered injuries from the crash, to which Martins responded with a counterclaim asserting the same thing.

Through attorney Richard K. Shoultz, Martins offered to settle for $100,000, and counsel for the Hills said they would accept the offer “as long as everyone dismisses and everything is over.” But when Martins was immediately unavailable to confirm to dismiss her counterclaim, the Hills filed a Motion to Enforce Unconditionally Accepted Qualified Settlement Offer.

The Lake Superior Court granted the motion, ordering the case be settled within 30 days, including the filing of a stipulated dismissal of the Hills’ claim and Martins’ counterclaim with prejudice.

However, Martins argued on appeal that the trial court erred in determining the parties had negotiated a valid settlement agreement and ordering that it be implemented. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday in Ana Martins v. Richard Hill and Diana Hill, 18A-CT-2740

“A close review of the plain language of the parties’ communications reveals that there was no mutual assent and no contract was formed. Attorney Shoultz’s letter discussed the Hills’ claims and Martins’ defenses but omitted any mention of Martins’ counterclaim. In addition, the letter emphasized the release and dismissal of the Hills’ claims against Martins, with no mention of the release and dismissal of her counterclaim,” Senior Judge John Sharpnack wrote for the panel.

“The Hills argue that Attorney Shoultz’s offer necessarily included Martins’ counterclaim because Indiana Code section 34-50-1-3 requires that a qualified settlement offer ‘must resolve all claims and defenses … between the offeror and the recipient.’ Nevertheless, the counterclaim was not included in Shoultz’s offer. As a result, we must conclude that the offer failed to meet the requirements for a qualified settlement offer,” Sharpnack wrote.

The COA further found that the Hills’ response did not qualify as an acceptance, but was rather a counteroffer due to the addition of the term: “as long as everyone dismisses and everything is over.” The appellate court added that the responses indicated that the negotiations were not at an end, when it asked Martins to “please confirm” that everyone was “dismiss[ing].”

Therefore, the appellate court reversed and remanded the case after concluding that the parties failed to agree upon a contractual settlement of the case under the Qualified Settlement Offer statutes, or otherwise, and that the trial court erred in granting the Hills’ motion.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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