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The Difference Between General and Limited Releases in Car Accident Settlements

Litigation is not uncommon following an auto accident. In many cases, the parties can still settle their dispute without the need for a full-blown jury trial. But before agreeing to any settlement, it is essential each party understands what rights they may be giving up. A settlement is a contract, which means there must be a “meeting of the minds” in order for the agreement to be enforceable.

Cone v. Dickenson

Recently the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed a dispute arising from just such a settlement agreement. The plaintiff and the defendant were in a car accident. The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging his negligence caused the accident.

During pretrial discovery, the parties discussed a settlement. According to the defendant and his attorney, there was an oral agreement with the plaintiff and her attorney. The defendant agreed to pay the plaintiff $25,000 in exchange for a “full general release” of the plaintiff’s claims and dismissal of her lawsuit. The defendant said his attorney sent an email to the plaintiff’s attorney to confirm this settlement.

But according to the plaintiff, she and her attorney had only agreed to a “limited release” in exchange for the $25,000. This is an important distinction. In car accident cases a defendant typically offers to settle for the limits of his or her insurance policy. This may not be enough to fully compensate the plaintiff. Under a limited release, an accident victim who receives the maximum benefit from a defendant’s insurer can still pursue uninsured motorist benefits from his or her own insurer. But a general release represents a final settlement of any and all claims arising from an accident, which would include any potential claim for uninsured motorist benefits.

The plaintiff in this case refused to sign a general release and dismiss her lawsuit, and instead signed a limited release and added her uninsured motorist carrier to the lawsuit. The defendant, in turn, asked the trial judge to enforce its purported version of the settlement agreement. The judge sided with the defendant, citing the plaintiff’s failure to object to the form of release immediately after receiving the defendant’s email confirmation of the oral settlement agreement.

On appeal, however, the Georgia Court of Appeals said the trial judge’s decision was premature. Given there was conflicting evidence over whether the parties orally agreed to a general or limited release, the appeals court said a jury, not the judge ruling on a motion for summary judgment, should resolve the matter. The email confirmation only served “to establish written evidence of the settlement,” the Court of Appeals said, but it did not entitle the defendant to summary judgment on the issue of the release.

If a jury subsequently decides that the plaintiff’s version of the settlement is correct—that is, the agreement only requires a limited rather than a general release—that means the plaintiff could then seek additional damages against her uninsured motorist carrier for the accident.