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Amatangelo v. Schultz

March 10, 2005

VINCENT AMATANGELO AND GINA AMATANGELO, APPELLANTS
v.
MARY K. SCHULTZ, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-8376-00). (Hon. Rhonda Reid Winston, Trial Judge).

Before Terry, Reid, and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Argued April 2, 2004

Following an automobile accident, appellee Mary Schultz filed a negligence action, seeking damages for her personal injuries, against appellants Gina Amatangelo (the driver of the other car) and Vincent Amatangelo (the owner of the other car).*fn1 Before trial, the parties entered into an agreement*fn2 which provided (1) that if the Amatangelos were found liable and the jury awarded less than $20,000, Ms. Schultz would still receive a minimum of $20,000; (2) that if the Amatangelos were found liable and the jury awarded more than $300,000, Ms. Schultz would receive only $300,000; and (3) that if the Amatangelos were found liable and the jury awarded damages in an amount between $20,000 and $300,000, the award would not be modified. The jury eventually found that the Amatangelos were not negligent and therefore not liable, and the court entered judgment in their favor. The judgment also provided "that the defendants recover of the plaintiff their costs of action."

The Amatangelos then filed a motion for costs, which the trial court granted (in part) because it found that the parties' pre-trial agreement "was contingent upon a finding of liability by the jury." Ms. Schultz responded by filing a "Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement," arguing that the court's ruling on the motion for costs was in error because it was based on incomplete facts. After the Amatangelos filed an opposition, the trial court vacated its previous order on costs, concluding that it had erred in interpreting the agreement. The court then granted Ms. Schultz's motion to enforce the agreement and ordered the Amatangelos to pay appellee $20,000, minus $1,287.35 in court costs.

On appeal, the Amatangelos argue that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to rule on Ms. Schultz's post-trial motion because it was not timely filed under Civil Rule 59 (e),*fn3 and that in any event the court should have denied the motion. We hold that the motion was timely because it was filed under Rule 60 (b),*fn4 not Rule 59 (e), but that the court erred in granting it. A contract was made between the parties before the pre-trial hearing, and any change to that contract required consideration. Because there was no consideration for the change that the court found had been made, the original agreement was not modified and must therefore be enforced according to its terms. This means that the court's original ruling that the agreement "was contingent upon a finding of liability by the jury" was correct and that the award of $20,000 to Ms. Schultz must be reversed.

I.

A few months before the trial began, the parties discussed the possibility of settlement, as well as an agreement setting maximum and minimum damages that would apply if the case proceeded to trial. The parties did not settle prior to trial, but they did make an agreement on damages, which was later reduced to writing and filed with the court. At a hearing shortly before trial, both counsel orally placed on the record the agreement's terms. However, their explanation of those terms was different from the terms set forth in the written document filed with the court. This discrepancy was not noted at that time and did not come to light until after the trial had ended.

A. Pre-Trial Negotiations

On March 18, 2002, appellants' (defendants') counsel wrote a letter to appellee's (plaintiff's) counsel which stated in its opening paragraph:

I am writing this letter to confirm that we have agreed upon a guaranteed minimum and maximum verdict for the trial . . . . Your client will be guaranteed a minimum amount of $20,000 if she prevails on liability. In return, your client will cap her damages at $300,000. As a result, if the jury enters a verdict less than $20,000, your client will receive $20,000. If the jury enters a verdict in excess of $300,000, the judgment will be limited to $300,000. . . . It is also my understanding that as a result of the hi/low agreement, you are dismissing your case against Mr. Vincent Amatangelo. [Emphasis added.]

Plaintiff's counsel responded as follows on March 20:

First, I agree to the high/low figure discussed in your letter ($300,000/$20,000). However, I cannot dismiss Mr. Vincent Amatangelo as a defendant unless that high/low figure is guaranteed for any trials that may result from an appeal of our upcoming trial. If you are willing to guarantee the high/low amount for any and all trials, I will dismiss Mr. Amatangelo from the above-captioned lawsuit.

Defendants' counsel replied on April 22, stating, "The high/low figure is guaranteed only for the upcoming trial. As a result, it is my understanding that you will not voluntarily dismiss Mr. Vincent Amatangelo as a defendant in this case." Plaintiff's counsel wrote back on May 9: "I am writing this letter to accept your latest hi-lo offer of $20,000/$300,000 under the condition that you will stipulate to the authenticity and accuracy of [Ms. Schultz's] time records that I mailed to you on March 27, 2002."

In a letter dated May 28, 2002, defendants' counsel wrote to plaintiff's counsel:

I am in receipt of your May 9, 2002, correspondence regarding [this case] and once again am perplexed. Your May 9th letter indicates that you have accepted our latest high/low offer of $20,000/$300,000 "under the condition that" the defendants will stipulate to the authenticity and accuracy of [Ms. Schultz's] time records that were mailed on March 27, 2002. Your letter also requests that I let you know if I object to those conditions.

I do object to those conditions for the following reasons. On March 18, 2002, I wrote a letter to you confirming that we agreed to a guaranteed minimum verdict of $20,000 with a guaranteed cap of your client's damages at $300,000, if she prevailed on liability.

In your March 20, 2002, letter, you indicated that you agreed to the high/low figure discussed. As a result, it is my understanding that we had an agreement that the damages for the upcoming trial would be capped at $300,000 with a minimum of $20,000. Although your client requested that the high/low agreement exist for any trials that may result from any appeal of this trial in exchange for dismissing my client, Vincent Amatangelo, from this lawsuit, we were unable to agree to those terms. As a result, as of March 20, 2002, there ...


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