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Grange Mutual Casualty Co. v. Woodard

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

June 30, 2017

GRANGE MUTUAL CASUALTY COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BORIS WOODARD, SUSAN WOODARD, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:14-cv-03283-RWS

          Before HULL and BLACK, Circuit Judges, and MORENO, [*] District Judge

          HULL, Circuit Judge:

         This case returns to us from the Supreme Court of Georgia, to whom we certified certain questions concerning O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1. Before turning to those questions, we offer a brief review of the facts, which are not in dispute and are set out more fully in our previous opinion. See Grange Mut. Cas. Co. v. Woodard, 826 F.3d 1289 (11th Cir. 2016).

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         In March 2014, the Dempseys and the Woodards were involved in a car accident in which Boris Woodard was injured and his adult daughter, Anna Woodard, was killed. Grange Mut., 826 F.3d at 1291. The Dempseys carried car insurance through Grange Mutual Casualty Company (the "Insurer Grange"). Id. The Dempseys' liability limits for bodily injury claims were $50, 000 per person and $100, 000 per accident. Id.

         On June 19, 2014, the Woodards' attorney mailed the Insurer Grange a settlement offer, offering a limited release of their claims against the Dempseys and the Insurer Grange in exchange for the $100, 000 policy limit. Id. The June 19 letter was titled "Offer to Settle Tort Claims Made Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1 and O.C.G.A. § 51-12-14." Id.

         As this Court previously explained:

The Woodards' June 19 letter contained an 11-item list of requirements for the Insurer Grange to comply with to accept the settlement offer. A statement, typed in bold, preceded the list and said: "The following items must be noted and fully and strictly complied with in order to accept this offer." The items most relevant to this appeal (numbers 1-5) are summarized below.
(1) "Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1, you have 30 days from your receipt of this offer to accept it."
(2) "Your acceptance of this offer must be made in writing to me at the above address shown in my letterhead. If we do not actually receive a timely acceptance, this offer will be deemed rejected . . . ."
(3) Acceptance requires affidavits from Thomas Dempsey, Delann Dempsey, and a Grange officer, swearing to the policy limits. "All three affidavits must be received in my office within ten (10) days after your written acceptance of this offer to settle. Timely compliance with this paragraph is an essential element of acceptance."
(4) "If payment is not tendered in cash pursuant to O.C.G.A. 9-11- 67.1(f)(1), payment in the amount of $50, 000 must be made payable to 'Boris and Susan Woodard and Michael L. Neff, their attorney for the wrongful death of their daughter, Anna Woodard' within ten (10) days after your written acceptance of this offer to settle. Timely payment is an essential element of acceptance."
(5) "If payment is not tendered in cash pursuant to O.C.G.A. 9-11- 67.1(f)(1), payment in the amount of $50, 000 must be made payable to 'Boris Woodard and Michael L. Neff, his attorney' within ten (10) days after your written acceptance of this offer to settle. Timely payment is an essential element of acceptance."

Id. at 1291-92 (emphases added).

         It is undisputed that the Insurer Grange timely sent the Woodards' attorney a written acceptance of the offer on July 22, 2014. Id. at 1292. Ten days from the July 22 acceptance letter was August 1. Id. On July 29, the Insurer Grange emailed the Woodards' attorney the required affidavits and stated that the checks were being issued that day. Id.

         Heather Conn, the claims adjuster that the Insurer Grange had assigned to the case (the "Adjuster Conn"), ordered the two settlement checks through the Insurer Grange's automated claims payment system, which was the company's routine practice for issuing such checks. Id. at 1291, 1292. As this Court previously explained:

Adjusters pull the mailing address for the checks from contact information previously uploaded into the Insurer Grange's system. The adjusters order the checks to go to the address on file, and then the checks are printed and mailed from a central location. The adjusters never see the checks.

Id. at 1292. Adjuster Conn followed this process when ordering the checks on July 29, using the contact information that was in the system for the Woodards' attorney.[1] Id.

         On August 12, attorney Michael Neff ("Attorney Neff") told Adjuster Conn that the settlement checks had not arrived and that the parties, therefore, had never reached a binding settlement agreement. Id. Despite Attorney Neff's statement that he would not accept reissued checks, Adjuster Conn ordered new checks and mailed them to Attorney Neff on August 12, along with screenshots showing the July 29 issuance of the original checks. Id. According to Conn's accompanying letter to Neff, the screenshots showed that the law office's address was complete in the "address tab, " but "somehow drop[ped] off in the mail/billing address tab." Id. The Woodards rejected this as an untimely settlement offer and returned the new checks. Id. at 1292-93.

         An information technology employee at the Insurer Grange later executed an affidavit stating that, when he created "test checks" using the information in the Insurer Grange's system, the street was missing from the mailing address printed on the checks. Id. at 1293. The employee concluded that "the street address was likely missing from the July 2014 checks." Id.

         II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Proceedings before the district court

         In October 2014, the Insurer Grange filed a one-count complaint against the Woodards. Id. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment in the district court. Id. at 1293-94. The district court granted the Woodards' motion for summary judgment and denied the Insurer Grange's ...


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