t’s important for those injured in auto accidents to be especially cautious of accepting payment at any point after the crash – or even during litigation – without careful consideration made with your attorney.

check1-225x300Insurance companies are notorious for approaching victims soon after an accident and tossing out inadequate settlement offers. They understand these people are at a vulnerable point, and by accepting payment early on, victims lose their right to pursue litigation later.

Even during litigation, there may be offers for settlement. There may even be a final judgment at trial. If an injury victim does not believe those amounts are fair, they should not accept them by cashing the check. Doing so may deny them the opportunity of any further litigation on the matter – even if those amounts are later deemed inadequate.

This was the situation for plaintiff in Tempel v. Benson, a car accident lawsuit litigated before the Montana Supreme Court.

Details of the actual crash were not laid out in the state supreme court opinion, but we know plaintiff sued defendant for negligence after the two were involved in a traffic crash in Missoula.

Eventually, plaintiff sought – and obtained – summary judgment on the issue of defendant’s negligence. After the district court granted that motion, the case proceeded to a jury trial on the issue of damages. Jurors ultimately awarded nearly $268,500 total. This included $168,800 for past medical expenses, $40,000 for future medical expenses, $35,000 for past and future pain and suffering, $21,800 for loss of earning capacity and $2,800 for loss of household services. Jurors denied an award of damages for emotional distress, loss of life enjoyment and past loss of earnings.

Defendant paid the $268,500 sum in full, plus interest. Plaintiff accepted these funds, and in turns signed a document that was titled “Acknowledgement of Payment of Judgment Reserving Claims for New Trial.”

Soon after, plaintiff moved for a new trial on the issues of emotional distress, loss of life enjoyment and future medical expenses. Defendant opposed that motion and requested the court issue an entry of satisfaction of judgment – meaning the case was over. Trial court concluded the jury’s verdict was supported by the evidence and granted defense motion.

Plaintiff appealed, and defense moved to dismiss on grounds plaintiff waived her right to an appeal by accepting the benefits of the judgment. In other words, by accepting that check for $268,500, plaintiff forfeited any future right to continue with the case.

The state supreme court granted review.

Justices noted that typically the right to appeal a judgment and the right to enjoy the benefits of it are mutually exclusive. That is, you can’t have it both ways. Someone who voluntarily accepts the benefits of a judgment waives his or her right to appeal the judgment.

There may be exceptions when the judgment contains numerous, severable parts. The court cited a number of examples in which plaintiffs were suing on various grounds, and accepted benefits of judgment on one ground, but not the other. In those instances, the court allowed plaintiff to appeal.

However in this case, all benefits were derived from a single assertion of defendant’s negligence in operating a motor vehicle. Further, the appeal rested on the single assertion of defendant’s negligence behind the wheel. Plaintiff would not be permitted to seek appeal of judgment for the same claim upon which she had just accepted payment.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Tempel v. Benson, March 17, 2015, Montana Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Cuozzo v. Orange – Suing for Highway Defects Resulting in Injury, March 9, 2015, Fort Myers Accident Lawyer Blog