By: Tony Carucci
In California, the “prevailing party” in litigation is generally entitled to recover its costs as a matter of law. See Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1032. But under California Code of Civil Procedure section 998, a party may make a so-called “offer to compromise,” which can reverse the parties’ entitlement to costs after the date of the offer, depending on the outcome of the litigation. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 998. The potential payoff of a 998 offer is that “If an offer made by a defendant is not accepted and the plaintiff fails to obtain a more favorable judgment or award, the plaintiff shall not recover his or her postoffer costs and shall pay the defendant’s costs from the time of the offer.” Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 998(c)(1) (emphasis added).
But how do you determine whether a plaintiff obtained a more favorable judgment when the 998 offer is silent with respect to whether it includes costs?
In Martinez v. Eatlite One, Inc. (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1181, 1182–83, the defendant made a 998 offer of $12,001 that was silent regarding the treatment of attorneys’ fees and costs. Plaintiff did not respond to the offer, and the jury ultimately awarded plaintiff damages of $11,490. Id. In resolving the parties’ competing memoranda of costs and plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees, the trial court awarded plaintiff her costs and attorneys’ fees. Id. at 1182. The trial court reasoned that plaintiff had obtained a more favorable judgment than the 998 offer because she was entitled to pre-offer costs and attorneys’ fees under the statute, which meant plaintiff’s ultimate recovery exceeded the 998 offer when added to the judgment. Id. at 1183. In other words, the court added plaintiff’s pre-offer costs and attorneys’ fees to the $11,490 verdict for the purposes of determining whether the “judgment” was greater than the 998 offer of $12,001. Id.
The court of appeal reversed, holding that because the statute “specif[ies] post-offer costs are excluded for purposes of determining whether plaintiff obtained a more favorable judgment, the statute necessarily implies pre-offer costs are included.” Id. at 1184 (emphasis in original). Thus, “the value of defendant’s 998 offer, which was silent on costs, necessarily included $12,001 plus plaintiff’s pre-offer costs and fees defendant would have been liable for if plaintiff had accepted the offer.” Id. at 1185. As a result, in determining whether plaintiff obtained a more favorable judgment, “the court should have compared the jury’s award plus plaintiff’s pre-offer costs and fees.” Id. Under that analysis, plaintiff did not obtain a more favorable judgment.
The court’s holding in Martinez serves to further clarify the issues that must be considered when drafting 998 offers and deciding whether to accept them.