If every dispute arising under the law of negligence had to go all the way to a jury trial in order to be resolved, there would be a huge backlog in the courts. Those injured by others’ carelessness might have to wait many years for justice. The defendant also would have to live with a great deal of uncertainty, waiting on the outcome of the case.
This is one of the many reasons that settlements are highly favored as a way to end a legal dispute arising from an accident. A recent case explores some of the issues that a court may encounter in determining whether a particular agreement is binding on the parties.
Facts of the Case
In a case recently under consideration by the Supreme Court of Texas, the plaintiff was a woman who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendants, a railway and others, after her husband and son were killed in an automobile/train collision. In the case, the plaintiff represented the interests of her husband and son’s estate and served as the next friend for her surviving child, who was a minor. Several other members of the plaintiff’s family joined in the case as well.
After a trial resulted in a defense verdict, the plaintiff’s attorney and the defendants’ attorney reached a “letter agreement” purportedly settling the case. However, when the plaintiff appeared at a hearing that had been scheduled for the purpose of approving the settlement, she told the court that she did not wish to go forward with the settlement. Eventually, however, the trial court rendered judgment on the purported agreement.
Following an appeal in which the trial court’s judgment was reversed due to an issue with the record on appeal, the trial court again ruled for the defendants, granting summary judgment on their claim that the plaintiff had breached the agreement. The court of appeals affirmed, even though the plaintiff insisted that she did not consent to the settlement.
Decision of the Supreme Court of Texas
On further appeal, the state’s highest court reversed and remanded, holding that the intermediate court of appeals had misapplied the rule that “a presumption operates to establish a fact until rebutted.” The court of appeals held that, since the settlement agreement was signed by one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, the defendants had proven, as a matter of law, that the plaintiff was bound by the settlement agreement. The state supreme court, however, opined that the court of appeals had erroneously applied a presumption concerning the validity of the agreement.
According to the court, the defendants were required to establish affirmatively that there was no genuine issue of material fact that the attorney who signed the release was authorized to execute the settlement agreement on the plaintiff’s behalf. Since the defendants only produced evidence to the effect that the plaintiff hired the attorney and that the attorney agreed to the settlement, this was not equivalent to showing that the plaintiff actually authorized counsel to enter into the agreement on her behalf.
Talk to an East Texas Car Accident Attorney
If you or a loved one has been involved in a car wreck, you need a law firm that you can trust to assist you in pursuing every dollar of compensation to which you are entitled. At Earl Drott Law, we have been helping east Texas families with serious injury and wrongful death cases for three decades. Call us at 903-531-9300 to set up a free consultation regarding your Tyler, Smith County, or other east Texas automobile accident case.
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