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Brenda Corbin Stirl and Ralph E. Stirl v. Terry Mcghee

April 25, 2013

BRENDA CORBIN STIRL AND RALPH E. STIRL, APPELLANTS
v.
TERRY MCGHEE, APPELLEE



On Appeal from the 104th District Court Taylor County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 24619-B

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jim R. Wright Chief Justice

In The Eleventh Court of Appeals

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This appeal stems from the trial court's determination that the parties had not entered into a settlement agreement as to the claims in the underlying suit. Terry McGhee was injured in an automobile collision and subsequently brought suit against Brenda Corbin Stirl and Ralph E. Stirl. While the suit was pending in the trial court, the Stirls filed a counterclaim alleging that the parties had entered into a valid and enforceable settlement agreement; the Stirls sought enforcement of that agreement. The trial court severed the counterclaim from the underlying suit, conducted a bench trial on the counterclaim, and held that no binding settlement agreement existed. The Stirls appeal. We affirm.

Issues/Points

The Stirls present four "issues" in their original brief and three "points" in a supplemental brief that was filed after the abatement of this appeal. In their first issue, the Stirls complain of the trial court's failure to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law. That failure was remedied by the trial court upon abatement of this appeal; thus, the first issue is overruled as moot. In their second issue, the Stirls contend that the evidence established as a matter of law that the parties had entered into a binding, enforceable settlement agreement. In the third issue, the Stirls argue that the trial court's finding that no settlement agreement existed is against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence. The Stirls complain in their fourth issue of the admission of parol evidence to alter, vary, or contradict the agreement. In their first point, the Stirls assert that the trial court erred in concluding that McGhee did not accept the offer. In the second and third points, the Stirls challenge the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court's findings that McGhee's letter did not constitute an acceptance and that McGhee did not understand the settlement offer.

Standards of Review

We review sufficiency challenges to a trial court's findings of fact under the same standards that we use to review a jury's findings. Catalina v. Blasdel, 881 S.W.2d 295, 297 (Tex. 1994); Anderson v. City of Seven Points, 806 S.W.2d 791, 794 (Tex. 1991). In analyzing a legal sufficiency challenge, we must determine whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach the verdict under review. City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 827 (Tex. 2005). We must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the challenged finding, crediting any favorable evidence if a reasonable factfinder could and disregarding any contrary evidence unless a reasonable factfinder could not. Id. at 821-22, 827. We may sustain a no-evidence or legal sufficiency challenge only when (1) the record discloses a complete absence of a vital fact, (2) the court is barred by rules of law or evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact, (3) the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla, or (4) the evidence conclusively establishes the opposite of a vital fact. Id. at 810. In analyzing a factual sufficiency challenge, we must consider and weigh all of the evidence and determine whether the evidence in support of a finding is so weak as to be clearly wrong and unjust or whether the finding is so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be clearly wrong and manifestly unjust. Dow Chem. Co. v. Francis, 46 S.W.3d 237, 242 (Tex. 2001); Pool v. Ford Motor Co., 715 S.W.2d 629, 635 (Tex. 1986). We review a trial court's conclusions of law, including those mislabeled as findings of fact, de novo. See BMC Software Belgium, N.V. v. Marchand, 83 S.W.3d 789, 794 (Tex. 2002).

Written settlement agreements may be enforced as contracts even if one party withdraws consent. Ford Motor Co. v. Castillo, 279 S.W.3d 656, 663 (Tex. 2009). To be enforceable though, a settlement agreement must comply with TEX. R. CIV. P. 11. Padilla v. LaFrance, 907 S.W.2d 454, 460 (Tex. 1995). Rule 11 provides that no agreement between attorneys or parties in a pending lawsuit will be enforced unless it is in writing and is signed and filed with the papers as part of the record or unless it is made in open court and entered of record. The agreement need not be contained in one document. Id. However, together, the writings must be complete in every material detail and must contain all of the essential elements of the agreement so that the agreement can be ascertained from the writings without resorting to oral testimony. Id. Settlement agreements are therefore governed by the law of contracts. Schriver v. Tex. Dep't of Transp., 293 S.W.3d 846, 851 (Tex. App.--Fort Worth 2009, no pet.).

Under Texas law, the requirements of a contract are (1) an offer, (2) an acceptance in strict compliance with the terms of the offer, (3) a meeting of the minds, (4) each party's consent to the terms, and (5) execution and delivery of the contract with the intent that it be mutual and binding. Hubbard v. Shankle, 138 S.W.3d 474, 481 (Tex. App.--Fort Worth 2004, pet. denied). A meeting of the minds is necessary to form a binding contract. David J. Sacks, P.C. v. Haden, 266 S.W.3d 447, 450 (Tex. 2008). Whether the parties have come to a "meeting of the minds," and therefore an acceptance of the offer, is measured objectively according to what the parties said and did, not on a party's subjective state of mind. Copeland v. Alsobrook, 3 S.W.3d 598, 604 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 1999, pet. denied). If contested, the "meeting of the minds" element is a question for the factfinder. Hallmark v. Hand, 885 S.W.2d 471, 476-77 (Tex. App.--El Paso 1994, writ denied). But whether an agreement is legally enforceable is a question of law. Ronin v. Lerner, 7 S.W.3d 883, 886 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.).

Relevant Documents

The Stirls contend that the following documents together constitute a valid settlement agreement: a letter dated December 22, 2006, to McGhee from Russell Manion, a claims adjuster for Texas Farm Bureau Insurance Companies, the Stirls' insurance carrier; a letter dated February 21, 2008, from McGhee to Manion; a letter dated February 26, 2008, from the Stirls' attorney to the law firm that had been representing McGhee; and a letter dated February 28, 2008, from McGhee to Manion. These documents were admitted as exhibits at trial. Because the content of the documents is essential to the issues in this case, we quote the relevant portions of the documents below.

The December 22, 2006 letter from Manion to McGhee reads ...


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