When someone is injured in a Florida accident, the state’s law allows them to file a civil suit against the responsible party. If successful, plaintiffs may be able to recover monetary compensation to cover lost wages, pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, loss of consortium, and even funeral and burial expenses. This compensation is called compensatory damages. In some cases, plaintiffs can also file for what is called punitive damages. In contrast to compensatory, Florida punitive damages focus on punishing the defendant, rather than making the plaintiff whole.

Punitive damages are only available in a small percentage of cases, where the conduct of the defendant was particularly egregious. But when they are awarded, they can be set as high as $500,000. Thus, when they are sued, it is in the defendant’s best interest to ensure that the plaintiff does not seek punitive damages. Generally, Florida has two situations in which plaintiffs can receive punitive damages—when the plaintiff can prove either intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Intentional misconduct occurs when someone knows that their conduct was dangerous and could injure someone but did it anyway. Gross negligence occurs when someone, indifferent to the life and safety of others, acts extremely recklessly or carelessly.

Plaintiffs may sometimes want to amend their complaint to seek punitive damages after it has already been filed. Section 768.72(1) of the Florida Statutes does allow plaintiffs to do just that in cases where “there is a reasonable showing by evidence in the record or proffered by the claimant which would provide a reasonable basis for recovery of such damages.” Whether or not a trial court grants this amendment is very important to a case; the Florida Supreme Court held 25 years ago that appellate courts cannot review a lower court’s decision to allow an amendment to a suit to include punitive damages so long as the judge follows proper procedures.

When people picture filing a lawsuit in court, they often imagine attorneys arguing in front of a judge along with heated debates and objections. While this is sometimes true, what many Florida personal injury plaintiffs do not realize is that many cases are actually decided before they even get to trial, through a process called “summary judgment.”

After a plaintiff files an initial complaint and the evidence has been collected, both parties can file a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to go ahead and decide that they won the case. Summary judgment is appropriate in cases where there is no dispute of material fact, so both parties agree on what happened and the law entitles one of them to a victory. For instance, if both parties agree that the defendant driver ran a red light and caused an accident, then the suit can be settled before trial.

While the above example sounds relatively simple, typically lawsuits are more complicated. For example, a state court of appeals recently reversed a wrongly decided grant of summary judgment for a defendant in a personal injury claim. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was driving to Tampa when he got a flat tire and visited a mechanic. At the mechanic’s, he paid an employee $20 to service the tire, although he never got any confirmation paperwork. However, when he was driving back to Miami, his tire blew out, causing him to crash into the median. As a result of this crash, he suffered serious injuries, and, as a result, is now a paraplegic.

Recently, an appellate court addressed an appeal in a Florida car accident case hinging on issues regarding the presumption of negligence in rear-end accidents. The plaintiff appealed a trial court’s ruling in favor of the defendant, who the plaintiff claimed rear-ended her vehicle. The accident allegedly occurred when the plaintiff was approaching an intersection, and the car in front of her suddenly stopped. The plaintiff and the defendant simultaneously applied their brakes; however, the plaintiff was able to avoid hitting the car in front of her, but the defendant slammed into the plaintiff. After the plaintiff’s case was dismissed by the trial court, the plaintiff appealed, arguing that the defendant did not provide enough evidence to rebut the presumption of negligence.

Under Florida law, rear-end accidents create a rebuttable presumption that the rear driver was negligent. Generally, the only way in which a rear driver can rebut this presumption is if they provide evidence that shows that the presumption is “not as presumed” or misplaced. If the rear driver can rebut the presumption, the jury will then make the typical comparative fault determination. Rear drivers will often claim that the lead driver engaged in some behavior that made it impossible for the rear driver to avoid an accident.

Typically, Florida courts permit rear drivers to rebut the presumption under only four circumstances. Defendants can rebut the presumption if 1.) their vehicle suffers a mechanical failure, 2.) the lead driver suddenly stopped, 3.) the lead driver suddenly changed lanes, or 4.) the lead driver made an illegal stop. However, an abrupt or sudden halt by itself is not enough to rebut the presumption. Courts explain that drivers have a duty to remain alert and to keep a safe following distance at all times, especially at common stopping locations, such as intersections.

Recently, an appellate court addressed whether a Florida plaintiff may recover uninsured motorist benefits after she suffered injuries at a mobile gym. According to the court’s opinion, the defendant ran a mobile gym out of his truck and trained the plaintiff for several years. To power the machines and equipment, the defendant plugged the mobile gym’s generator into an outlet at the woman’s home. This arrangement worked well until the woman suffered permanent injuries during one of her sessions. The woman settled negligence claims with the mobile gym owner and her personal trainer. However, she also filed an uninsured/underinsured motorist claim (UIM) with her insurance company. The insurance company claimed that its UIM policy does not apply to motor vehicles such as a mobile gym. Ultimately, the trial court found in the insurance company’s favor, and the woman appealed the ruling.

Car insurance coverage is an integral part of car ownership, and can protect motorists from disastrous financial burdens if they are involved in an accident. However, the Insurance Research Council estimates that over 12% of drivers do not have car insurance coverage. When a driver is involved in a Florida car accident with a UIM driver, they may face challenges in trying to recover for their damages. To address this inherent unfairness, many car insurance companies offer their policyholders UIM coverage. This protects drivers from high out-of-pocket costs if they are a victim of a hit-and-run or an accident with a negligent UIM.

When a Florida driver files a UIM claim with their insurance company, the company effectively steps into the shoes of the negligent driver. In many instances, the policy holder’s relationship with their insurance provider becomes adversarial, and claimants need to fight for their benefits.

A Florida appellate court recently issued a written decision in which it examined the summary judgment standard in a negligence case arising out of a traffic accident. According to the court’s opinion, the accident occurred at an intersection when a driver of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) was heading south on the road, while the plaintiff, on a motorcycle, was driving north. The driver of the SUV was making a left turn when the plaintiff, still heading north, crashed into the right front fender of the SUV. The plaintiff, who testified that he was unable to stop in time to avoid the crash, was seriously injured.

The driver of the SUV stated that he did not see the motorcycle coming because his view of oncoming traffic was obstructed by newly planted palm trees at the median. The city, which was the defendant in this case, was responsible for the palm trees, which had wooden supports at their base, allegedly blocking the driver’s view. The motorcyclist sued the city for negligent design and placement of the palm trees, because they obstructed driver’s views of oncoming traffic when making a turn.

In response, the city claimed that it did not know, nor should it have known, that the planting of the palm trees with the wooden supports created a dangerous condition. Under Florida law, if the city was correct, the suit could not move forward. The city filed a motion for summary judgment to end the lawsuit, which was granted by the trial court. The plaintiff then appealed.

In August, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Florida personal injury case discussing the statute of limitations for a negligence claim against a construction company. According to the court’s opinion, in 2012 the plaintiff was climbing up an attic ladder in his residence when it collapsed, causing injuries. Four years later, in 2016, the plaintiff sued the defendant construction company who had built the home, alleging negligence in the installation of the attic ladder.

The defendant construction company filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the trial court because Florida law states that an action based on the “construction of an improvement to real property” has a ten-year statute of limitations. Finding that the Florida law applied in this case, and that the house was completed in 2004, the trial court found that the plaintiff’s claim was barred.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal, arguing that the Florida law does not apply because the construction of the attic ladder was not an “improvement to real property.” On appeal, however, the state appellate court agreed with the defendant construction company and affirmed the trial court’s holding and the defendant’s motion to dismiss. According to the court’s opinion, the attic ladder constituted an “improvement to real property” because it provided additional utility to the home; residents could now access the attic without having to bring a stand-alone ladder to the attic opening. The court held that the attic ladder did not have to increase the value of the property or be essential to the property to constitute an improvement; merely providing the additional utility was enough. Additionally, the court found that the ladder was installed during the home’s initial construction, and required both labor and money to be installed, which further supported the conclusion that the ladder was an “improvement to real property.”

In a recent opinion, an appellate court addressed the validity of exculpatory clauses in Florida personal injury lawsuits. The court certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court regarding the extent to which exculpatory clauses are enforceable.

The issue stems from a contract dispute between a travel agency and a Florida corporation that specializes in website development. The two parties executed a service agreement that included a provision stating that the website developer would not be liable for any damages, and waived all claims against them. The lower court noted that the exculpatory clause rendered the entire service agreement illusory. The court explained that the contract was both illusory and amounted to an “unenforceable agreement to agree.” The case was appealed to the Florida Court of Appeals.

The Florida Court of Appeals explained that Florida contracts require several elements to be valid. A valid contract includes acceptance, consideration, and sufficient specification of essential terms. However, unsure how to rule on this specific issue, the court certified a question regarding the validity of exculpatory clauses in Florida contracts to the state’s high court.

Recently a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Florida personal injury case requiring the court to decide whether an accident victim could still recover for their injuries when they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when the accident occurred. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff appealed a trial court decision that found him unable to recover any damages after being injured in a motor vehicle accident because he was under the influence of an alcoholic beverage at the time. As required by law, the trial jury apportioned liability amongst the plaintiff and defendant. They assigned 55 percent negligence to the plaintiff and 45 percent negligence to the defendant.

Generally, Florida is considered a “pure comparative” negligence state. In pure comparative negligence states, plaintiffs can recover compensation from another party, unless the plaintiff is the only one to blame for the accident. In theory, this means that a plaintiff can recover compensation for their injuries even if they are 99 percent at fault. However, their proportionate level of fault reduces the total damage award. The “drug and alcohol” defense, contained in Florida Statutes section 768.36, is an exception to this general rule.

In such cases, the court can preclude the plaintiff’s recovery if the defendant can establish that the plaintiff was more than 50 percent at fault for the accident and their injury occurred when they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or their blood or breath alcohol level was .08 or higher. Most importantly, the jury must also find that the influence of the alcoholic beverage or drug caused the plaintiff to be more than 50 percent at fault for their injuries. Each of these requirements must be met for the defense to apply.

In April of 2019, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Florida personal injury case discussing whether the plaintiffs were properly allowed to amend their complaint to add a claim for punitive damages against the defendant. Ultimately, the court concluded that the trial court followed the required procedures when granting the plaintiffs leave to amend, and that the appellate court did not have jurisdiction to reconsider the lower court’s substantive legal decision once it determined the procedures were followed.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiffs were the parents of a young girl who was seriously injured when she fell from a ride called “Psycho Swing.” The safety harness was not installed on the ride at the time of the girl’s injury. The plaintiffs filed a personal injury claim against several parties, including the defendant, which was the company that owned the ride and leased it to the company that was operating it when the plaintiff was injured. The plaintiffs claimed that the ride was missing crucial safety equipment and was being operated without the instruction manual.

Initially, the plaintiff sought punitive damages from all other defendants but not the defendant involved in this appeal. However, the plaintiffs soon after requested a second hearing, seeking leave to amend their complaint to add a claim for punitive damages against this defendant. The court considered evidence from the first hearing, as well as deposition testimony from the creator of the ride who stated, among other things, that providing the swing to another company without the safety harness was “unconscionably something that you shouldn’t do.” After hearing all the evidence, the court determined that there was a reasonable basis for the plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages. The defendant filed an immediate appeal.

Among the various types of damages that may be available through a Florida personal injury are loss of consortium damages. These damages are unique in that they are not designed to compensate the victim for any of the injuries they sustained, but instead focus on providing the spouse of the injury victim compensation for loss of the “sexual relationship, affection, solace, comfort, companionship, conjugal life, fellowship, society, and assistance necessary to a successful marriage.”

Under Florida personal injury law, a loss of consortium damage claim is filed by a “deprived spouse,” based on injuries that the “impaired spouse” suffered. To successfully file a claim for loss of consortium, a deprived spouse must be able to establish:

  • that a valid marriage existed between the deprived spouse and impaired spouse at the time of the injury;