In Massachusetts, even if you successfully settle or litigate a negligence action and are awarded damages, receiving the payment of damages can become challenging. This is demonstrated in a recent Massachusetts car accident decision (16-P-1623) that upheld a settlement agreement made between the owners of a farm, the driver of a car, and her husband. The driver was seriously injured after her vehicle collided with two cows from the defendants’ farm that had wandered into the road. The injured woman and her husband filed suit against the owners, which eventually led to mediation. A settlement agreement was reached between the injured couple and the defendant husband. The defendant wife was not present and did not sign the agreement afterward.
A settlement agreement is a contract between two or more parties to settle the pending litigation and release the defendant from future claims. A court ordering the enforcement of an agreement must be confident the parties actually came to an agreement over the essential terms of the settlement. Issues over minor, collateral matters are not detrimental to enforcement. For example, even if there is no deadline specified for when the obligation is to begin, the agreement will remain intact, and a “reasonable” date can be used if it does not change the essence of the contract. Once a settlement agreement is reached, the agreement is reported to the court, which will then decide whether to enter an order to formalize the agreement. Once this occurs, unless there is a determination that the agreement was either unenforceable or materially breached, the parties must follow the terms within the document or face civil penalties for failing to uphold their obligation.
In this lawsuit, the defendants failed to perform their obligations under the agreement. The injured woman and her husband filed a motion requesting the trial court to enforce the agreement. The defendants were given proper notice but failed to attend the hearing to answer or contest the agreement. The judge signed an order formally adopting the agreement, entering a judgment against both defendants for $40,000 to the plaintiffs and $4,364.28 for attorney’s costs and fees, to be paid according to a payment schedule. The agreement also allowed the defendants to finalize a judgment against an unrelated party and for the plaintiffs to pursue the $40,000 from the same unrelated party.
In its opinion, the appellate court discussed how settlement agreements are considered enforceable if the terms are definite and complete, and if there is a present intent of the parties at the time the agreement is reached to be bound. The defendants argued these parallel pursuits created an indefiniteness, rendering the agreement unenforceable. The court disagreed and found the agreement, signed by the husband and counsel for the couple, was enforceable. The defendants did not contest the plaintiff’s assertion that the husband had the authority to enter the agreement on behalf of both of them. The defendants also did not raise this issue on appeal, merely asserting the lack of the wife’s signature rendered the agreement unenforceable. The court rejected all of the defendants’ arguments, stating the defendants had proper notice and all of the parties followed appropriate steps to create an enforceable agreement. The order to enforce was upheld, and the judgment against the defendants remained intact.
The Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at Karsner & Meehan are here to help you through all phases of litigation. Negligent parties look to eliminate or minimize any obligation to pay damages to the injured person at every stage of the proceedings. Our lawyers will work tirelessly to maximize any awarded damages and fend off all post-judgment attempts by a defendant to reduce the amount they owe to you. If you’ve been injured at work or in a car accident, contact our office today at 508-822-6600.
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