The Business Litigation Blog

Judge Takes a Bite at Lawyer in Dog Bite Case

In a recent lawsuit regarding a personal injury to an individual from a dog bite, the lawyer representing the insurance company for the dog’s owners was fined $50,000 for failing to have the appropriate authority to settle the case.

The lawyer came to the settlement meeting in Nevada court with settlement authority for $600,000 on behalf of the insurance company. The plaintiff’s attorney came to the court initially seeking $75,000 in medical bills and $850,000 in punitive damages. During negotiations, the plaintiff’s attorney stated that he was willing to accept $750,000 in damages to settle the claim. But, since the insurance company’s attorney had only been given $600,000 in settlement authority, the attorney had to reject the offer of $750,000.

  Injured Plaintiff

The plaintiff in this action was a landscaper named James Moberly. In 2011, while working, Moberly was attacked and bitten several times by a German shorthaired pointer owned by the Mathis family. After being bitten by the dog, Moberly fell backwards and re-aggravated an existing spinal condition. Moberly’s attorney claims that Moberly was the fourth person to be bitten by the dog.  Moberly sought damages from the Mathis family for his personal injuries and $850,000 in punitive damages due to the fact that the family had been reckless in its care of the dog by letting it repeatedly bite people.

Negotiating in Bad Faith

The judge in the case found the defendant’s insurance company to be in contempt of court by not sending an attorney with sufficient settlement authority. As part of the contempt sanction, the judge fined the company $50,000.  The judge determined that the disparity between what the defendant’s attorney was authorized to settle for ($600,000) was too far from the initial damages request by the plaintiff, which totaled $925,000. Since the defendant did not send a representative with sufficient settlement authority, the judge found that the defendant was negotiating in bad faith. It is both unprofessional and unethical for a party (or his attorney) to negotiate in bad faith.  The insurance company argued that it sent its attorney with a reasonable settlement authority and that the judge was overly harsh in finding them in contempt of court.

According to Nevada court rules, a settlement representative should have “full settlement authority,” meaning that he could settle the case for the full amount that the plaintiff requested in his complaint. While the defendant should have the “authority” to settle at the amount the plaintiff requested in his complaint, that does not mean that the defendant has to actually be willing to settle for that amount. Some have found that the judge overstepped his authority by finding a lawyer in contempt for not settling a case (which a party can always refuse to do), while others agree with the judge for forcing defense attorneys to come prepared for any settlement agreement.

While the parties may have been interested in settling, it appears that the case will now go to trial.

If you have questions about legal malpractice or attorney ethics, call or email the attorneys at the Patterson Law Firm for guidance. To learn more about the services we offer visit pattersonlawfirm.com or call 312.223.1699.

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