Punitive damages can be awarded in Florida personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits in which a defendant acted with gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The definitions of these terms are set forth in F.S. 768.72.
But while punitive damages may substantially increase the amount of a certain damage award, the Fourteenth Amendment blocks these awards from being “grossly excessive.” But what does that mean? There is no dollar figure that establishes what is “grossly excessive,” which means the courts have to interpret legislative intent and rely on prior case law.
One Florida injury case where this became necessary was State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company v. Brewer, recently before the Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals. In this case, defendant and his insurer sought review of a final judgment entered in favor of plaintiffs in an injury case arising out of an automobile accident. The court affirmed judgment in favor of plaintiffs as well as the compensatory damages awarded. However, with regard to punitive damages, the court ruled the award was excessive to the point of being unconstitutional. For this reason, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
According to court records in this South Florida traffic accident lawsuit, plaintiff was struck by a vehicle driven by defendant – a physician – in the early morning hours of Nov. 30, 2008. Undisputed evidence showed that the defendant doctor fell asleep at the wheel, which was the sole cause of the crash.
But the issue of why the doctor fell asleep was central. The physician insisted he’d merely had a long day. Plaintiff, however, showed evidence tending to indicate the doctor consumed prescription sleep aid pills before getting behind the wheel on a three-hour drive to Sebring. Medical evidence was presented to back plaintiff’s version. Based on this evidence, the court allowed plaintiff to seek punitive damages.
Trial court bifurcated the proceedings, allowing the issue of the accident, injuries and compensatory damages first and next the issue of punitive damages. Jurors in the first case found in favor of plaintiffs and awarded $629,000 to plaintiff and another $110,000 for his wife (for loss of consortium). Jurors also decided the doctor should have to pay punitive damages. So the next part of the trial involved how much the doctor should have to pay in punitive damages.
Defendant presented evidence indicting his entire net worth – assets minus debts – was $284,000. He asked that the jury not financially devastate him by awarding that entire amount. But in spite of this, that’s exactly what the jury did – awarding plaintiff 100 percent of defendant’s net worth.
Defendant first asked the trial court for a remittitur, and when that was unsuccessful, he appealed.
The appeals court ruled that the damage award was excessive. In any case, when weighing the reasonableness of an award, the court is tasked with weighing it proportion to defendant’s net worth. So a company that is valued at billions of dollars is almost certain to pay more in punitive damages than an individual – even if all other elements were equal.
The court took note of several prior court cases in which it indicated that punitive damages cannot bankrupt or financially devastate a defendant. Other courts in Florida have held that 40 percent is excessive. The 2nd DCA wrote that this would mean, then, that a punitive damage award that matches a defendant’s net worth is excessive.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company v. Brewer, May 4, 2016, Florida’s 2nd DCA
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Report: Florida Fatal Van Crash Driver Impaired by Antihistamine, May 8, 2016, Fort Myers Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog