F.S. 768.72 allows personal injury claimants in Florida to seek punitive damages against defendants for especially egregious wrongs.
However, there are many limits on these damages. Although they are received by the plaintiff, they are not intended to compensate the plaintiff. Rather, they are intended to punish the defendant. Courts have to first grant plaintiffs permission to seek these damages in the first place. Beyond that, they cannot be “unconstitutionally excessive,” though there is no exact dollar-figure cut-off.
The recent car accident lawsuit of State Farm v. Brewer (consolidated with the appeal of Goellner v. Brewer) before Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals reveals how the courts can approach these cases to determine what is reasonable and what is excessive.
Here’s what happened:
A physician was driving during the early morning hours of November 30, 2008 when he fell asleep at the wheel. As a result of his drifting off to sleep, he caused a car accident which caused injury to plaintiff. That much is undisputed. In fact, the doctor conceded liability before the trial even started.
That meant there were two issues that had to be resolved: The extent of plaintiff’s injuries and the reason why defendant fell asleep. Both questions were central to the issue of damages, or how much defendant would have to pay plaintiff.
Concerning the issue of why the doctor fell asleep, he contended it was because he’d simply had a very long day and was extremely tired. However, plaintiff alleged it had to do with the fact the doctor consumed prescription sleeping medication before he set out on a three-hour drive to Sebring.
On the basis of evidence plaintiff gathered concerning the doctor’s toxicology report, plaintiff asked the court for permission to seek punitive damages, which was granted. Defendant didn’t appeal that ruling.
The trial court bifurcated the trial: One trial to deal with the issue of the trial and plaintiff’s injuries and the other to determine, if warranted, punitive damages.
Jurors in the first trial heard all the evidence and ultimately awarded plaintiff $629,000 (and his wife $110,000) in compensatory damages. Jurors were then asked whether plaintiffs should be entitled to punitive damages. F.S. 768.72 says punitive damages may be awarded where defendant engaged in either intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Jurors decided that, yes, plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages.
A second trial was held to determine the amount of those punitive damages.
Plaintiffs did not present additional evidence at this second trial, and only asked jurors how much should be awarded as an appropriate punishment for the doctor. The doctor testified he had $300,000 in his bank and retirement accounts, a vehicle worth $500 and about $16,000 he owed in taxes. That put his net worth at about $284,000. He asked that the damage award not be so large as to financially devastate him.
Jurors returned an award of $284,000 – 100 percent the doctor’s net worth.
Defendant filed a motion for either a new trial or a remittitur, which trial court denied. Defendant appealed. He argued the punitive damage award was so large it was unconstitutional.
The Fourteenth Amendment bars the state from imposing a “grossly excessive” punishment against a tortfeasor, and part of what must be taken into consideration is the defendant’s net worth. The appellate court looked at other cases, and found proportionality must be taken into consideration. So a person with a net worth of $8 million is probably going to pay more than someone with a net worth of $800,000 – all other things equal.
Although the court did not prior cases had found it unconstitutionally excessive to impose a punitive damage award greater than one’s net worth, it couldn’t find a case in which jurors had assessed a damage for a defendant’s exact net worth. However, it did find case law that established a punitive damage that either bankrupts a defendant or financially devastate him is unconstitutionally excessive.
The court also took note of one case in which the 4th DCA ruled a punitive damage award that represented 40 percent of a defendant’s net worth was “excessive” under the legal definition. Therefore, a damage award of 100 percent a defendant’s net worth is also excessive.
The case was remanded for further consideration.
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State Farm v. Brewer, May 4, 2016, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Distracted Driving Florida Car Accident Kills 3-Year-Old, April 18, 2016, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog