APPLICATION OF SET-OFF WHEN DETERMINING PREVAILING PARTY FOR PURPOSES OF ATTORNEY’S FEES

The recent opinion from the Second District Court of Appeal in Hayward Baker, Inc. v. Westfield Ins. Co., 2020 WL 7767859 (2nd DCA 2020) demonstrates that the significant issues test for determining the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees applies to disputes involving payment bonds under Florida’s Lien Law (Florida Statutes Chapter 713).  The significant issues test is more or less a subjective test where the party that is deemed to have prevailed on the significant issues in the case is the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in the case.  A trial court has discretion to determine the prevailing party which will not be disturbed absent an appellate court finding the trial court abused that discretion.   This significant issues test is an important consideration so that parties understand just because money ends up going their way does not necessarily mean they prevailed on the significant issues in the case.  It could mean that.  But it may not based on the claims and moneys involved in the dispute.

In Hayward Baker, the subcontractor recovered a final judgment of $290,000 against the general contractor and payment bond surety. Both the subcontractor and general contractor moved for attorney’s fees as the party that prevailed on the significant issues in the dispute.  The subcontractor was awarded the full amount due under the subcontract; however, there was a set-off issue.  The general contractor asserted a claim against the subcontractor for property damage associated with the subcontractor’s work and received $450,000 from an insurance carrier relative to that claim in a settled dispute.   The subcontractor was able to set-off this recovered amount from the property damages the general contractor sought against the subcontractor. Thus, the issue was when factoring in the set-off, which party prevailed on the significant issues.  The Second District held it was the subcontractor that recovered the final judgment in its favor:

[T]he ruling on [the subcontractor’s] motion to set off the $450,000 [the general contractor] had received from the [insurance carrier] in the 2012 [settled] Case against the damages award entered against [the subcontractor] was pivotal to the prevailing party determination. The result of applying the setoff against [the general contractor’s] damages award was that [the general contractor] received none of the benefit it sought in the litigation: a judgment was not entered against [the subcontractor] for any of the damage caused to the hospital property. On the other hand, [the subcontractor] received all of the benefit it sought in the litigation, as it obtained $290,000 plus prejudgment interest for the work it performed under the subcontract and it was relieved from paying any damages to [the general contractor]. [The subcontractor], therefore, was the prevailing party in the underlying litigation and entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees

Hayward Baker, 2020 WL at *2.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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