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Contribution Rights in Florida Car Accident Claims

In many Florida car accident claims, there is more than one tortfeasor (wrongdoer) who may be compelled to pay damages to the injured victim. Prior to 2006 and the passage of F.S. 768.81, Florida’s pure comparative fault statute, injured car accident victims could seek the full amount of damages from a single defendant – even if that defendant was only partially responsible for the crash. That defendant then had a right of action to pursue action against the other responsible parties to pay their fair share. This is the doctrine of joint and several liability, but it was effectively abolished with the introduction of Florida’s comparative fault law, along with the 2009 decision of the Second District Court of Appeal in T&S Enterprises Handicap Accessibility v. Wink Indus. Maintenance & Repair Inc. In that case, the court held that defendants who intend to assert fault on a non-party joint tortfeasor need to do so as an affirmative defense. Another ruling in 2011 by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida (relying on the decision in Wink) rendered any contribution-related claims “obsolete.”

The issue of joint liability is one that varies widely from state-to-state. Recently in Illinois, the state supreme court held that a counterclaim for contribution by joint tortfeasors following an injurious truck accident was rightly dismissed, despite defendants’ claims that a prior settlement was not reached in good faith because the settling defendant’s conduct was intentional.

Here’s what happened: Plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle traveling on the interstate around 1:30 a.m. At the time, three lanes were closed due to construction. One defendant, a truck driver, was traveling in his semi truck behind plaintiff. He was operating this truck on behalf of his employer and the carrier of the truck, which are the other named defendants. At the same time, another defendant, a driver under the influence of cocaine, was traveling the opposite way on the interstate, made an improper U-turn through the median and collided with the vehicle in which plaintiff was riding. Plaintiff’s vehicle rotated and defendant truck driver did not have enough time to stop. He slammed into the passenger door of that vehicle, causing plaintiff serious and permanent injuries. 

Plaintiff filed her car accident lawsuit against all defendants. Prior to trial, she entered into a settlement agreement with the impaired driver for his insurance policy limit of $20,000 (with the blessing of her underinsured motorist coverage carrier). Defendant later pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence of drugs and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He acknowledged fault for the crash, but claims no recollection of it, as he too suffered severe brain damage as a result of the crash.

The defendants who did not settle filed a counterclaim for contribution against the impaired driver, alleging his conduct was intentional rather than negligent and that this intentional conduct caused plaintiff’s injuries.

However, the trial court granted impaired driver defendant’s petition for a finding of good faith settlement and dismissal.

Remaining defendants appealed, arguing the good faith finding was erroneous because it failed to consider their rights under state law limiting liability of minimally responsible defendants. However, both the appellate court and the state supreme court affirmed. The court found that a counterclaim that alleges intentional conduct are separate and independent causes of action that don’t alter the nature of plaintiff’s original complaint, which alleged only negligence. Asking the court to make a ruling on the fault of each defendant before finding the agreed settlement was reached in good faith would be not only impractical, it would defeat the purpose of state law that encourages settlement in the absence of bad faith, collusion or fraud.

In Florida, F.S. 768.1(5) holds that settling parties in an injury action must act in good faith with respect to non-settling ones.

Anytime there are numerous at-fault parties in an Orlando car accident, the legal and procedural issues can be confusing, but it’s important to hire an injury attorney with a firm grasp of these concepts who can fight for the maximum compensation for your injuries.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Antonicelli v. Rodriguez, Feb. 16, 2018, Illinois Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Injury Lawyer Answers: Can I Sue Uber if My Driver Wrecks?, March 17, 2018, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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