From the Courts of Equity of the England of yore to Louisiana’s Third Circuit, fairness is and has been for a long time an essential component of the law. Civil concepts of fairness still exist today, especially in Louisiana courts dedicated to making whole the victim of a crime.
Edward Signal, like many injury victims, acquired the right to sue at the time of his injury. This right is a commodity of sorts and can be bargained away in an agreement known as a release. Mr. Signal signed one of these agreements with BellSouth Telecommunications after a BellSouth employee, Jared Romero, struck Mr. Signal’s vehicle on the on-ramp of Highway 90 from Willow Street in Lafayette. Mr. Signal received a check from BellSouth for the exact amount of the damage to his car. When he cashed this check, he failed to consider an important phrase in the letter that accompanied it. BellSouth indicated that this check was intended to be a “full and final settlement of [Mr. Signal’s] claim.” There was also language on the back of the check that indicated the check was for “property damages and/or bodily injury.” After cashing the check, Mr. Signal discovered the check to not fully cover his damages and filed suit in this matter. In response, BellSouth raised the affirmative defense of res judicata claiming that Mr. Signal’s claim was already settled.
The trial court determined that Mr. Signal, a 73-year-old man with a self-assessed third grade reading level, was not quite on even footing with the more sophisticated corporate defendant. In so concluding, the trial court found that Mr. Signal’s behavior was reasonable. A reasonable man in his situation would assume that a check for the amount of damage to his car would not also be intended to cover personal damages. The State of Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit affirmed Mr. Signal’s right to sue BellSouth for damages arising out of his personal injuries.
There were two essential values at stake in this case: 1) freedom of contract and 2) fairness. The corporate defendant, obviously having more resources and knowledge, was attempting to escape the full extent of its vicarious liability for the actions of its employee while on the job. Would this case have turned out the same if Mr. Signal were a corporate lawyer with a rich knowledge of the law surrounding contracts of adhesion and alternative dispute resolution? Probably not. Should it have? Fairness dictates that the outcome probably should be different.
Releases are an essential mechanism for both plaintiffs and defendants. They offer a kind of safety net for parties on each side of a dispute. A plaintiff exchanges his or her right to sue for the guarantee of some compensation while a defendant receives exemption from suit in exchange for a smaller payout. Both parties benefit if a fair bargain is struck. If one party is of considerably disparate sophistication, as was the case of Mr. Signal, then there is a fundamental, almost extreme aversion to such an agreement.
A potential plaintiff is fully capable of essentially selling his right to sue but should not be tricked by a potential defendant that outclasses him or her in almost all relevant parameters. This is a noble position summarized extremely poignantly by the trial court in this case. The court said flatly that “this is not acceptable to the Court” when referring to BellSouth apparently trying to take advantage of Mr. Signal’s plight. This court and the Court of Appeal, Third Circuit struck a blow for fairness in reaching these conclusions. Decisions like this one and those cited within it enshrine a sense of fair play and justice that help protect future victims from unfair business practices.
If you have been injured and an insurance company offers you a settlement or release, do not say or sign anything without first consulting a licensed attorney. Contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing the best experts, our law firm is fully capable of meeting your litigation needs. Call the Berniard Law Firm at Toll-Free at 1-866-574-8005 and an attorney specializing in your needs will be more than happy to help you get the full financial support that fairness and the law say you deserve.