Release: Intent; Mistake; Reformation

McKeever v. Rushing, ___ So. 3d ___, 35 Fla. L. Weekly D1530 (Fla. 2d DCA 7/9/10)

The plaintiff sustained personal injuries and property damage in a motor vehicle accident.  The defendant reimbursed the plaintiff for his property damages, and the plaintiff signed a property damage release that purported to relinquish his claim for personal injuries.  Nevertheless, the parties continued to communicate regarding the plaintiff’s personal injury claim.  Eventually, the plaintiff filed suit, and the defendant’s answer did not raise the affirmative defense of release.  After four years of litigation, the defendant moved for summary judgment based upon the release, and the trial court granted the motion based upon the plain language of the release.  The appellate court reversed because a genuine issue of fact existed as to what the parties intended and whether they made a mistake.  Although trial courts generally should rely upon the plain meaning of unambiguous documents, an exception exists if the document was executed by mistake or execution of the document was procured by misrepresentation or fraud.  In this case, (1) the defendant wrote letters to the plaintiff regarding his personal injury claim after he signed the release, indicating that the claim was still pending, (2) the plaintiff filed an affidavit stating that he did not think that he was relinquishing his personal injury claim by signing the release and, if the release had that effect, he signed it by mistake, (3) the title of the release was inconsistent with the language in the body of the document, (4) the payment made in exchange for the release was for the exact amount of the plaintiff’s property damage, and (5) the defendant waited until the case had been litigated for four years before raising the release as a defense.  As a result, the trial court erred by granting the defendant’ motion for summary judgment and summarily denying the plaintiff’s motion to reform the release.