The Court of Appeals of Georgia recently issued its opinion in Pierce v. Banks, No. A23A0394 (Ga. Ct. App. Jun. 28, 2023), addressing the limits of the mirror image acceptance rule for time-limited settlement demands.
Pierce arises out of a simple motor vehicle accident. Prior to filing suit, the plaintiff issued a time-limited demand, which Georgia often refers to as a “Holt Demand” or “9-11-67.1 demand,” to the defendants’ insurer offering to settle the claim in exchange for the defendants’ policy limits of $25,000. The plaintiff’s demand contained a host of onerous, technical requirements that were obviously designed to trick the insurer into accidentally failing to accept the demand properly and thus generate a potential bad faith claim.
Those technical requirements were:
- The insurer must accept the demand in writing within 31 days.
- The check must be made payable to the plaintiff and “Brooks Injury Law, LLC” (the comma issue comes up).
- Payment must be received 15 days after acceptance of the demand.
- The payment could not contain terms, conditions, descriptions, expirations or restrictions (expiration is a critical issue here).
- Any deviation from these terms would be considered a counteroffer and rejection of the demand.
This demand was obviously designed to manufacture a potential bad faith claim against the insurer by making it nearly impossible to satisfy each and every condition precisely as set forth in the demand. The plaintiff’s motivation also is obvious – the underlying claim was worth far more than the minimum limits of the insurance policy. By making it nearly impossible for the insurer to satisfy all of the requirements, the plaintiff set the trap in hopes of receiving a technical “rejection” of the demand under the mirror image rule, and thereby expose the insureds to potential liability beyond the limits of the policy, the basic prerequisite for a bad faith claim. Unsurprisingly, the insurer failed to exactly meet each and every one of those conditions – at least in the eyes of the Court of Appeals.
The insurer retained defense counsel to respond to the demand. Only days after receipt of the demand, defense counsel sent a letter to plaintiff’s counsel in which she stated she was “authorized to accept” the demand on behalf of the insurer. Enclosed with defense counsel’s letter was a check for $25,000 and a limited release. The insurer issued the check prior to the deadline set forth in the demand. The check was payable to the plaintiff and “Brooks Injury Law LLC” (no comma). The settlement check also had a notation that it was “void after 180 days.”
The plaintiff’s counsel filed suit and claimed the defendant’s insurer did not follow the instructions in the demand and had therefore rejected it and made a counteroffer, opening the door to a bad faith claim. After filing an answer, the defendants filed a motion to enforce the settlement. The plaintiff opposed that motion and argued the insurer had rejected the demand by failing to follow or comply with the demand’s specific conditions under the following theories:
- Defense counsel states she was “authorized” to accept the demand instead of explicitly stating the insurer “accepted” the demand.
- The settlement check failed to include a comma in the name of the payee. The check was payable to “Brooks Injury Law LLC” rather than “Brooks Injury Law, LLC.”
- The demand said payment must be issued 15 days after acceptance, and the insurer issued it sooner than that, doing so at the time of the purported acceptance.
- The check said “void after 180 days.”
The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments and granted the defendant’s motion to enforce settlement. Plaintiff then appealed that order. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court ruling, finding that the defendant didn’t match the terms exactly, and thus rejected the demand by making a counteroffer. Specifically, the Court of Appeals determined that issuing payment earlier than the plaintiff’s demand required – on the 15th day after acceptance – was a failure to accept the demand’s precise terms.
Further, the Court of Appeals agreed with plaintiff that the inclusion of the “void after 180 days” language was a failure to accept the demand’s requirements that the payment have no notations or restrictions. The Court of Appeals declined to rule on the other arguments that the insurer rejected or at least failed to accept the demand due to its failure to include the comma in “Brooks Injury Law LLC” in the settlement check and the defense counsel’s failure to state the insurer “accepted” the demand and instead states the insurer “authorized” settlement.
The defendants have filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, requesting that the Supreme Court of Georgia review the case and clarify the law on technical issues and requirements contained within time-limited demands. Several amici have filed Amicus Curiae briefs in support of the Petition, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The defendants-petitioners and amici argue the Supreme Court should impose a materiality requirement on any conditions within a time-limited demand and instead hold that an insurer that makes a good faith attempt to accept all material terms of a time-limited settlement cannot be found to have rejected the demand by virtue of an accidental counteroffer premised on failure to comply with non-material technical terms.
The Supreme Court of Georgia has not issued a ruling on the Petition. For now, the Court of Appeals decision remains the rule. Therefore, insurers can and should expect gamesmanship from plaintiffs using time-limited demands (especially in situations where the available limits are low or where the damages plausibly exceed the available limits). Insurers should anticipate and look for demands with voluminous or ostensibly minor or technical conditions to be sure they do not accidentally “reject” a demand that they fully intend to accept.