Settlement Agreements Do Not Preclude All Future Lawsuits

deer_roe_deer_herd-1024x558Entering into a settlement agreement can help efficiently resolve a lawsuit and allow both parties to move forward. However, sometimes you might be involved in multiple interrelated lawsuits. If you sign a settlement agreement with one party, are you precluded from pursuing other related litigation?

Donald Hodge Sr., who is now deceased, owned a deer farm located in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (“LDAF”) learn the herd possibly had Chronic Wasting Disease, which likely came from six deer purchased from a farm in Pennsylvania. LDAF put a quarantine over the Hodge Farm. Hodge died the next day before he knew about the quarantine. 

Once the quarantine was in place, LDAF tried to locate the deer purchased from Pennsylvania. However, there were no deer at the Hodge Farm with tags indicating they were the likely inflected deer. Hodge’s children and administrators of his estate filed a lawsuit against LDAF. They wanted to lift the quarantine so they could sell the farm. They claimed the at-issue farm had been delivered to a different deer farm located in Mississippi, owned by Jared Oertling. The Hodges also sought damages from LDAF associated with the costs they incurred from the quarantine. 

The Hodges also filed a lawsuit against Oertling, claiming they had allowed them to feed their deer during the quarantine, but they moved the pins on the deer to promote breeding and gave false statements to LDAF. The Hodges entered a settlement with LDAF and their lawsuit against LDAF was dismissed. The settlement allowed LDAF to depopulate the farm, but LDAF would be responsible for the efforts and the associated costs. 

Oertling filed a summary judgment motion, claiming the language in the LDAF settlement applied to all lawsuits involving the quarantine. The Hodges countered the LDAF settlement did not release their claims against the Oertlings. The Hodges also argued emails exchanged in the course of negotiating the settlement indicated their intent about the parties to be covered by the settlement agreement. The trial court granted Oertling’s summary judgment motion, finding the LDAF settlement covered the Hodges’ lawsuit against Oertling. 

Under La. C.C. art. 3071, a compromise, such as this settlement agreement, is a written contract that must be interpreted according to the parties’ intent. A compromise agreement only settles those differences the parties clearly intend to settle. See La. C.C. art. 3076.

In this case, the Hodges claimed the entire settlement agreement indicated they only intended to release the LDAF. The appellate court noted nothing in the settlement agreement indicated it was releasing the claims against Oertling. On the contrary, the agreement limited its scope to the parties involved in the LDAF lawsuit. 

Furthermore, the claims against Oertling involved different conduct and related to different purported damages. Additionally, because the parties’ intent was clear from the plain language of the settlement agreement, the court did not need to consider extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intent. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s grant of Oertling’s summary judgment motion.

If you are considering entering into a settlement agreement, it is important to consult with a knowledgeable attorney, who can review the settlement agreement and make sure it covers what you think it does, so that you do not face surprises in subsequent lawsuits. 

Additional Sources: Donald Hodge Jr. v. Jared Oertling et al.

Article Written By Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Settlement Agreements:  Can a Settlement Agreement Preclude Future Lawsuits? Not Always: A Case Study

Louisiana First Circuit Says Settlement Not Enforceable Based on Email Communications

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