12 September 2006

This could have been the first two-word opinion in appellate history.

"Well, duh."

That's probably all that needed to be said in response to a motion to enforce a settlement negotiated via e-mail:

An agreement to settle an asbestos-related lawsuit that was worked out between the parties via e-mail is valid and enforceable even before the parties sign a formal settlement agreement, a Washington appeals court has ruled.

. . . .

Following a hearing on Kaiser Gypsum's motion for summary judgment, but before the King County Superior Court ruled, the parties' attorneys began settlement negotiations via e-mail.

LeAnn McDonald of Brayton Purcell in Portland, Ore., represented [plaintiff Richard] Anderson, and Christopher Marks of Williams, Kastner & Gibbs in Seattle represented Kaiser Gypsum.

Marks offered to settle the case for $20,000 or enter into a "high-low" settlement, based on the outcome of the summary judgment motion.

. . . .

McDonald wrote, "We'll take the 20K now."

Marks wrote: "Done and done. 20K for all asbestos claims, past, present and future."

The trial court later denied Kaiser Gypsum's motion for summary judgment. Gil Purcell, a partner in Brayton Purcell, then told Marks there was a mistake and there was no settlement agreement, according to the appeals court.

Kaiser moved to enforce the agreement, and the trial court granted the motion, leading to this appeal.

The Court of Appeals noted that "general principles of contract law govern settlement agreements."

The panel said informal writings can bind parties even when they intend to later formalize the agreement.

The attorneys' informal exchange here satisfied that rule, the appeals court said, affirming the trial court's ruling.

It's always possible that there are some complications in this case which were not alluded to in the foregoing article. If not, though, this is one of those decisions which couldn't go the other way without some truly tortured reasoning. Perhaps the plaintiff had second thoughts after prevailing in the motion for summary judgment, perhaps his attorney exceeded her settlement authority, or perhaps there was something more going on here. Regardless, this effort to disavow the e-mailed settlement seems like grasping at straws.

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