Florida Supreme Court Holds Florida’s Offer of Judgment Statute, Fla. Stat. § 768.79, Is Not a Prevailing Party Statute
by Michael H. Scott
On June 15, 2023, the Florida Supreme Court held that the offer-of-judgment statute, Fla. Stat. § 768.79, does not require the moving party to prevail in the proceeding in order to be entitled to attorney’s fees and is not a prevailing-party statute.
In Coates v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Petitioner Brinda Coates (“Coates”) sued Respondent R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (“RJR”) seeking damages for the wrongful death of her sister. Prior to trial, Coates served RJR with two Proposals For Settlement pursuant to Fla. Stat. § 768.79, which RJR rejected. The trial court entered a $16,150,000 judgment for Coates, $16,000,000 of which was for punitive damages.
On appeal, the punitive damages award was reversed, as the Court deemed it excessive. Coates subsequently requested attorney’s fees incurred during the appeal pursuant to her pretrial offers of judgment. RJR argued that Coates should not be awarded fees because she was not the prevailing party in the appeal.
In analyzing the issue on appeal, the Supreme Court applied the supremacy-of-the text principle to Fla. Stat. § 768.79 and noted the absence of specific prevailing party language that the legislature included in other Florida statutes. The Supreme Court concluded that, based on its analysis of the statutory language of Fla. Stat. § 768.79, an offeror may be entitled to attorney’s fees even if the offeror is not the prevailing party.