When is a case settled? When all parties (and maybe their attorneys) agree it is settled

Skier sued ski resort for injuries received skiing into bald spot. Skier argued they had agreed on a settlement before trial, which only became an issue after the plaintiff lost at trial.

Strawbridge, Jr. v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated, et al., 152 Fed. Appx. 286; 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23459

State: North Carolina, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Plaintiff: Vincent F. Strawbridge, Jr.; Rebecca S. Strawbridge

Defendant: Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated; B. Dale Stancil, individually; The Sugar Mountain Irrevocable Trust; The B. Dale Stancil Irrevocable Trust,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, loss of consortium and requested compensatory and punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: not stated

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2005

This case is difficult to understand the facts of what happened and what the claims or defenses are. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was succinct in its opinion and reasoning for its opinion.

The plaintiff was skiing at the defendant Sugar Mountain Resort when he skied over a ledge into a bar spot where he fell. The plaintiff’s (husband and wife) sued for $8 million. They sued the ski area, and they sued the owner of the ski area because the ski area only had $1 million in liability insurance.

At one point before trial and before and after the magistrates ruling the parties were close to a settlement agreement. The settlement the defendant had offered was $450,000 and the plaintiff had counter offered $1 million. The plaintiff was trying to avoid the subrogation claims of his insurance companies, which amounted to $400,000. So one of the issues negotiated was how the money was to be paid, as damages or as lost future income. Damages would be subject to subrogation claims.

However, no agreement was reached; no settlement was signed, and no money exchanged hands between the parties. The magistrate held a hearing on the issue and held that no settlement had occurred because there had not been an agreement to the material terms of the agreement. Both parties to a contract must understand and agree to the major terms of a contract for a contract to be valid, and a settlement agreement is a contract.

The magistrate ruled that the defendant should win its motion for summary judgement. The federal district court ruled that only the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages should be dismissed, and the rest should go to trial.

A trial occurred which the defendant won. The plaintiff appealed whether or not a settlement had occurred and issues pertaining to jury selection. The defendant appealed the issue of why assumption of the risks was not allowed as a defense.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The majority of the agreement looks at the issues on how the jury was selected and is not important here. The court also said that evidence of rocks in the bare spot was not admitted. However, the court found that since the plaintiff did not mention rocks in his testimony, only a bare spot, then the denial of the admittance of the evidence of rocks was correct.

The next issue was whether there was a settlement between the parties. The district court had also held a hearing on the issue of whether the parties had settlement and held that there was no meeting of the minds.

The final issue the court reviewed was the settlement agreement, which the appellate court agreed with the lower court and ruled there was no meeting of the minds. The way the money was to be paid was a material factor in the agreement which was not agreed upon by the parties so the parties did not have a contract.

So Now What?

To sue the owner of the ski area you would have to breach the corporate veil. That means you would have to find a reason to prove the corporation was a sham. Normally, that is something like using the corporation personally, not maintaining corporate records or not running the corporation properly. The most-used way to pierce the corporate veil is to prove a corporation was used for fraudulent purposes. One way to pierce the corporate veil that is rarely, if ever used, is because the corporation is underfunded.

Here it is not explained what theory the plaintiff was relying upon to sue the owner individually. However, the fact that a large corporation only had $1 million in liability insurance could fall both as running a corporation without enough money or running it improperly. More than anything, it is just stupid.  

Until any agreement is finalized, proving a settlement with some way to prove the terms, and the agreement to the terms, is difficult. Once you agree, do not relax until all parties and the parties’ attorneys have signed the settlement agreement, and the judge has dismissed the case.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss

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