The Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued its decision Opinion in Pierce v. Banks, No. A23A0394 (Ga. Ct. App. June 28, 2023), addressing the limits of the mirror image acceptance rule for time-limited settlement claims.
Pierce arises from a simple car accident. Before filing suit, the plaintiff made a time-limited demand to the defendant’s insurer, often referred to in Georgia as the “Holt demand” or “9-11-67.1 demand,” in which he offered to settle the claim in exchange for the Defendants’ insurance limit of $25,000. The plaintiff’s claim contained a variety of onerous technical requirements that appeared designed to mislead the insurer into inadvertently failing to properly accept the claim, thereby triggering a potential bad faith claim for damages.
These technical requirements were:
- The insurer must accept the claim in writing within 31 days.
- The check must be made payable to the plaintiff and “Brooks Injury Law, LLC” (there is a decimal point issue).
- Payment must be received 15 days after acceptance of the claim.
- The payment must not contain any terms and conditions, conditions, descriptions, expiry dates or restrictions (expiry time is a critical issue here).
- A deviation from these conditions is considered a counteroffer and rejection of the claim.
This claim was clearly intended to create a potential claim for damages against the insurer by making it almost impossible for each and every condition to be met exactly as set out in the claim. The plaintiff’s motivation is also obvious – the underlying claim was worth far more than the minimum amounts of the insurance policy. By making it nearly impossible for the insurer to comply with all requirements, the plaintiff set the trap in hopes of obtaining a technical “rejection” of the mirror image rule claim and thereby exposing the insureds to potential liability beyond the limits of the policy , the basic requirement for a bad faith lawsuit. Not surprisingly, the insurer did not precisely meet each of these conditions – at least in the eyes of the appeal court.
The insurer hired a defense attorney to respond to the claim. Just days after receiving the claim, the defense sent a letter to the plaintiff’s attorney stating that she was “authorized to accept the claim on behalf of the insurer.” Attached to the defense attorney’s letter was a check for $25,000 and a limited release. The insurer issued the check before the deadline specified in the request. The check was payable to the plaintiff and “Brooks Injury Law LLC” (without a comma). The settlement check also noted that it was “void after 180 days.”
The plaintiff’s attorney filed suit alleging that the defendant’s insurer failed to follow the instructions in the lawsuit and therefore rejected it and made a counteroffer, opening the door to a bad faith lawsuit. After filing an answer, the defendants filed a motion to enforce the settlement. The plaintiff denied this motion, arguing that the insurer denied the claim because it did not follow or comply with the specific terms of the claim based on the following theories:
- The defense attorney states that she was “authorized” to accept the claim, rather than expressly stating that the insurer had “accepted” the claim.
- The payment check did not contain a comma in the payee’s name. The check was payable to “Brooks Injury Law LLC” and not “Brooks Injury Law, LLC.”
- The request for payment must be made 15 days after the acceptance and the insurer has issued it earlier, at the time of the alleged acceptance.
- The check said “void after 180 days.”
The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments and granted the defendant’s motion to enforce a settlement. The plaintiff then appealed against this decision. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the defendant did not exactly meet the conditions and therefore rejected the claim with a counteroffer. Specifically, the Court of Appeal found that it was a failure to accept the exact terms of the claim if payment was made earlier than the plaintiff’s claim required – namely on the 15th day after acceptance.
In addition, the appeals court agreed with the plaintiff that the inclusion of the language “void after 180 days” was a failure to accept the claim’s requirements that the payment be free of endorsements or limitations. The appeals court declined to rule on the other arguments that the insurer rejected, or at least did not accept, the claim because it did not include the comma in “Brooks Injury Law LLC” in the settlement review and defense counsel failed to do so Comma to be specified The insurer has “accepted” the claim and instead states that the insurer has “authorized” the settlement.
The defendants have filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari asking the Georgia Supreme Court to review the case and clarify the law on technical issues and requirements related to time-limited actions. Several amici have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the petition, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Defendants/petitioners and amici argue that the Supreme Court should impose a materiality requirement on all terms within a time-limited claim and instead rule that no insurer can be found that will attempt in good faith to accept all of the material terms of a time-limited settlement having rejected the claim due to a fortuitous counteroffer based on non-compliance with non-essential technical conditions.
The Georgia Supreme Court has not issued a ruling on the petition. For now, the appeals court’s decision remains the rule. Therefore, insurers can and should expect plaintiffs to play around by making time-limited claims (particularly in situations where the available limits are low or where the damages plausibly exceed the available limits). Insurers should anticipate and look for claims with extensive or seemingly minor or technical conditions to ensure they do not inadvertently “deny” a claim that they fully intend to accept.