The Alaska Supreme Court recently issued a decision with important practical implications for individuals with personal injury claims in Alaska. In a case handled by Alaska Personal Injury Group attorney Neil O’Donnell, the Court ruled that a negligent driver (who was insured by State Farm) had to pay 75% of the plaintiff’s attorney fees for not accepting plaintiff’s earlier reasonable settlement offer. Yaple v. Okagawa, Opinion No. 6494 (July 16, 2010). Under Alaska Civil Rule 68, if a party makes a settlement offer and beats that offer by 5% or more at trial, the other party has to pay up to 75% of the offering party’s attorney fees. The issue before the Alaska Supreme Court was how to calculate this attorney fee award for a prevailing plaintiff who hired his attorney on a percentage contingency fee basis.
Seventy five percent (75%) of a contingency fee may be much smaller than 75% of the attorney fees calculated on an hourly basis (i.e., the hours worked by the attorney multiplied by the attorney’s normal hourly billing rate). Plaintiffs in Alaska with modest claims previously faced the risk of having to pay a large attorney fee award to the defendant if they did not “beat” the defendant’s offer of judgment while only receiving a modest attorney fee award if they instead prevailed. In the case handled by the Alaska Personal Injury Law Group, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that Rule 68 attorney fee awards could be calculated for both defendants and plaintiffs on an hourly basis even if the plaintiff hired his attorney under a percentage contingency fee. This ruling affirmed an attorney fee award to Mr. O’Donnell’s client that State Farm had argued was far too large.
The bottom line is that this decision substantially increases the incentives for insurance companies to accept reasonable settlement offers (instead of delaying, litigating, and hoping that claimants will eventually settle for less), at least when injured individuals are represented by competent counsel and the insurance company knows that their attorney is willing to go to trial.
Okagawa v. Yaple, Opinion No. 6494 (July 16, 2010), accessed at: http://www.courts.alaska.gov/ops/sp-6494.pdf