JAMES I. GREENHALGH, JR., Individually, and in his capacity as ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF STEPHANIE GREENHALGH and JAMES I. GREENHALGH, III, by his natural guardian and next friend James I. Greenhalgh, Jr.
Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Max Wistow, Esq.; Michael J. Stevenson, Esq.
For Defendant: Mark T. Nugent, Esq.
On October 20, 2015, the Court heard Defendant's motion for summary judgment and Plaintiffs' cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Defendant seeks summary judgment on the basis that a valid settlement has occurred between the parties. Plaintiffs seek summary judgment on the narrow issue that a settlement has not occurred between the parties. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14.
Facts and Travel
On September 20, 2009, Plaintiff James I. Greenhalgh, Jr. was driving his motorcycle in Coventry, Rhode Island, with his wife, Stephanie Greenhalgh (collectively, Plaintiffs or the Greenhalghs). Defendant Alecia Keegan (Keegan) was operating an automobile behind the Greenhalghs. Keegan attempted to pass the Greenhalghs, but her automobile allegedly collided with the handlebar of the Greenhalghs' motorcycle. Mr. Greenhalgh sustained physical injuries from the accident. Mrs. Greenhalgh sustained severe physical injuries and subsequently died.
The Greenhalghs made a claim against Keegan, and the issue before the Court is whether a settlement ever occurred. On July 16, 2010, the Greenhalghs made a demand to Keegan's automobile insurance company, American Commerce Insurance Company (ACIC), for the policy limit of $100, 000. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. D.). The demand included liability releases that were not previously approved by ACIC. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. E.). Eventually, the releases were rejected by ACIC, and new releases were proposed to the Greenhalghs on August 19, 2010. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. F.). The Greenhalghs rejected the new ACIC releases on August 30, 2010 and resubmitted the July demand with the original liability releases. (Pls.' Mem. Exs. G, H.). The next day, ACIC again rejected the demand, stating that the proposed releases did not adequately protect the insured and a joint tortfeasor release was required. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. I.).
On October 14, 2010, the Greenhalghs commenced this litigation. On November 12, 2010, the Greenhalghs made a settlement demand of $99, 800, including the same liability releases from the July demand. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. K.). This demand was forwarded to Joel Gerstenblatt (Attorney Gerstenblatt), the attorney reviewing the settlement offers. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. K.). On December 7, 2010, Attorney Gerstenblatt phoned Max Wistow (Attorney Wistow), the Greenhalghs' attorney. The pair discussed the offer and a third-party lien by Ingenix. The exact details of the communication are the center of this dispute. Following the conversation, Attorney Wistow sent a fax to Attorney Gerstenblatt stating that Attorney Gerstenblatt rejected the November demand by making a counteroffer, which required protection from the Ingenix lien. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. M.). On December 8, 2010, Attorney Wistow received a fax, with a letter dated December 7, 2010, from Attorney Gerstenblatt, claiming that he had accepted the demand and only inquired about the Ingenix lien. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. N.). That same day, Attorney Wistow was informed by an analyst from Ingenix that ACIC had inquired as to the status of the Ingenix lien that very morning. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. O.). The analyst informed ACIC that the lien had been settled. Attorney Wistow claims that Attorney Gerstenblatt's December 7, 2010 letter was back dated in an attempt to make it appear as though Attorney Gerstenblatt accepted the offer prior to seeking the status of the third-party lien from Ingenix.
The parties continued to dispute whether a contract was formed on December 7, 2010 or whether ACIC made a counteroffer to the November demand. On August 27, 2012, Mr. Greenhalgh made a demand of $50, 000 to settle only his personal injury claims. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. S.). In a letter dated September 14, 2012, ACIC "accepted" the demand, but submitted different releases, which released all of the claims Mr. Greenhalgh had against Keegan. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. T.). Mr. Greenhalgh rejected this counteroffer on October 11, 2012. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. U.). The parties disagreed as to whether ACIC's September letter constituted an acceptance or a counteroffer as well. ACIC claimed that it was custom to discuss the form of the release, and it was willing to settle the case. (Pls.' Mem. Ex. X.). On February 6, 2014, Keegan moved to deposit $100, 000 into the court registry; the request was granted on April 11, 2014, and the funds were subsequently deposited.
In summary, Keegan alleges that a valid settlement agreement was first reached on December 7, 2010, when Attorney Gerstenblatt accepted the Greenhalghs' offer after inquiring about a third-party lien. Additionally, Keegan posits that a second valid settlement agreement was reached in regards to Mr. Greenhalgh's claims in September of 2012.
The Greenhalghs, on the other hand, deny that any settlement ever occurred between the parties. First, the Greenhalghs argue that the issue is not properly before the Court because "release" is an affirmative defense that must be pled in the answer or other responsive pleading. Second, Plaintiffs argue that the contents of the communications between the attorneys in this case cannot be taken as true because the Greenhalghs failed to prove the truth of the contents with a supporting affidavit. Third, Plaintiffs contend that even if the issue was properly before the Court, a settlement never occurred between the parties because ACIC made counteroffers to both offers by requiring conditions that were not stated in ...