The essential elements necessary to form a binding contract are usually described as: (1) an offer, (2) an acceptance, (3) a legal purpose or objective, (4) a “meeting of the minds,” (5) consideration, and (6) competent parties. Ambiguities typically arise with offers and acceptances that often lead to litigation. An offer is generally defined as the manifestation of the willingness to enter into a deal so as to justify to another party the offeror’s assent to the deal. Although an acceptance of an offer can occur in several ways, it is most typically described as the assent to the terms made by the offeror. In a recent case in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a finding made by a trial court that an offer and acceptance were ambiguous is under appeal.
On December 13, 2006, a woman robbed Jalil Abushanab as he was about to enter the Isle of Capri Casino in Lake Charles. While attempting to chase the woman, Mr. Abushanab was struck by an SUV and suffered bruises, abrasions, and a broken hip. After Mr. Abushanab’s death in early 2008, his surviving spouse and ten children were substituted as party plaintiffs and asserted claims against the Isle of Capri Casino for wrongful death and survivor damages. In May of 2011, the Isle of Capri Casino filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims for lack of liability. But on August 6, 2011, before the hearing, the casino made a written offer to the plaintiffs seeking to settlement the matter for $250,000.00. Prior to the hearing, the plaintiffs accepted the casino’s offer with a signed acceptance letter.
On October 6, 2011, a trial court ruled in the plaintiffs favor and agreed with their motion that the offer made by the casino was exclusive of medical and statutory liens and court costs. At that time, Mr. Abushanab’s family was awarded a lump sum payment of $250,000.00, plus any Medicare/Medicaid liens, a lien on behalf of a drug company, and court costs. Accordingly, Isle of Capri Casino appealed, contending that the trial court was legally incorrect in its finding and that based on the law and on the totality of the circumstances, the offer and acceptance were ambiguous. The casino contends that not only did the trial court err in refusing to consider the casino’s intent when it made the offer, but that the court erred in concluding that there was a “meeting of the minds” and that the parties had reached a compromise agreement.
According to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals, there is no merit to the casino’s contention that the trial court was legally incorrect in finding the offer and acceptance ambiguous. “Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law.” In its decision, the Third Circuit stated that “[t]o determine whether the trial court was legally correct in its determination that the offer was ambiguous, we will independently examine the offer ‘without giving any deference to [the trial court’s] conclusion.”
As such, the Third Circuit examined the language of the offer and the arguments made each party concerning the meaning and interpretation of commas and conjunctions in the offer. According to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, both parties submitted two reasonable interpretations of the offer, but further suggested that “the issue presented to us is not the most probable intent of the parties or the most probable interpretation of the offer. Rather, the issue before us is whether the offer is ambiguous.” Id. at 9. Ultimately, the Third Circuit concluded that while the offer can be clearly construed in two very different and reasonable manners, as the offeror, it was the casino’s responsibility to clearly phrase its offer. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s determination that the casino’s offer was ambiguous.
When a court makes a finding on whether an offer and acceptance is ambiguous, its decision is often unpredictable. Therefore, it is important to properly iron out the details of an agreement to avoid or appropriately prepare for litigation.
At The Berniard Law Firm, our attorneys are well versed in contract law and are experienced in representing clients in matter such as the one mentioned above.