McKenzie v. Ford Motor Co.Annotate this Case
Plaintiff-appellant James McKenzie appealed a trial court’s order awarding him only $28,350 of the nearly $48,000 in attorney fees he sought in this case, following the parties’ settlement of McKenzie’s claim under the automobile “lemon law” provisions of the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. The trial court refused to award McKenzie any of the attorney fees incurred in the wake of Ford’s initial offer because it viewed the compromise offer ultimately accepted by McKenzie as essentially identical to the offer he had initially rejected – distinguished only by his “demand that [he] be allowed to file [a fee] motion.” The court concluded McKenzie unreasonably delayed settlement for the sole purpose of ginning up his fee award. The Court of Appeal reversed. The Court found the trial court’s comparative assessment of Ford’s two settlement offers was erroneous as a matter of law. "Even Ford concedes its initial settlement offer incorporated numerous extraneous provisions – including broad releases of both Ford and nonparties, an illegal confidentiality clause characterized as 'material' to the settlement, and what amounted to an opt-out provision in Ford’s favor – all of which were excised from the offer McKenzie later accepted. These differences are significant, and thus McKenzie’s rejection of the initial offer was reasonable, requiring his counsel to continue working on the case." The Court held further that the trial court’s erroneous comparison of Ford’s initial compromise offer with the offer McKenzie later accepted fatally undermined its conclusion that the entire amount of hours billed by McKenzie’s counsel in the wake of that initial offer was unjustified. The court’s additional finding, that McKenzie’s two attorneys also engaged in instances of duplicative billing after Ford’s initial offer, did not support a complete denial of fees for that period. Consequently, the case was remanded back to the trial court with directions to reconsider the fee award.