Following a Washington automobile accident, insurance companies often rush to settle with any injured victims. When injury victims settle too quickly, they may not be fully compensated for their injuries. If the injury victim settles with the insurance company and agrees to release the other driver from all claims, he or she will generally not be able to recover for injuries discovered or treatment received after the release.
A settlement agreement and release is a contract, and contract law applies. To form a contract, the parties must “mutually assent” to the essential terms. Settlement agreements do not have to be in writing under Washington law. In a recent case, an injury victim challenged an alleged oral settlement and release due to a language barrier.
The plaintiff was involved in a vehicle accident and received medical treatment for his injuries. Although the plaintiff’s English is sufficient for his day-to-day activities, he uses an interpreter for legal and medical matters. An insurance representative called him less than a month after the accident to discuss settlement. The call was recorded. The insurance representative stated that purpose of the recording was “to verify that in exchange for [$3,785.51]” the plaintiff agreed to release the defendants “for any and all claims known and unknown for injuries [he] sustained in as a result of the accident…” She asked if he understood and agreed to release the defendants in exchange for $3,785.51.
The plaintiff responded “Yes.” The representative also stated that the insurer agreed to allow up to $3,000 for additional reasonable and necessary medical expenses for the next 180 days. She again asked if he understood, and he responded “Yes.” She asked if he agreed to release the defendants for all claims “except as outlined in the terms of this agreement and release” and he again responded “Yes.”
The insurance company mailed the check that day, and the plaintiff cashed it. The insurance company also sent a check for the vehicle damage, which the plaintiff cashed. When the insurance company sent another check for a medical expense claim the plaintiff submitted, the plaintiff’s attorney returned the check to the insurance company.
The plaintiff filed suit against the other driver. The driver moved for summary judgment due to the release. The plaintiff argued that, due to his limited English proficiency, he believed “release” meant the insurance company would release a check to him. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed.
Summary judgment is only appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Whether mutual assent exists to support the formation of a contract is generally a fact question. In prior cases, Washington courts have found that mutual assent was not present where one party did not understand the language in which the contract was written. Here, the plaintiff claimed he misunderstood the meaning of the word “release.” The appeals court found it was possible he reasonably believed he was accepting specific amounts for specific damages and did not intend to release all his claims. The appeals court found there was a question of fact as to whether there was mutual assent to the settlement, so summary judgment was inappropriate. The appeals court reversed and remanded the case.
Insurance companies are sophisticated and can take advantage of injury victims who are not familiar with their processes and the laws involved. If you have been seriously injured in an accident, you should speak to an experienced Washington car accident attorney before agreeing to something you do not understand. The attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, can help you navigate through the insurance claim process to get the compensation you deserve. Call us at (206) 622-6562.