Typically, the thought of conceding liability in a negligence suit runs counter to conventional legal strategy. In fact, attorneys often spend considerable time trying to counteract even banal admissions that occur prior to formal litigation that could be construed as declarations of liability. However, a recent case coming from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals demonstrates how a proactive admission of guilt can occasionally work in a defendant’s favor.
In Swanson v. Robles, the Second District Court of Appeals held that allowing evidence of a defendant’s drug use during the first phase of a trial when the defendant had already admitted liability for both compensatory and punitive damages was reversible error. The case arose from a traffic accident in October 2008. A truck being driven by the defendant struck a vehicle owned by the City of Tampa and a city employee who was unloading traffic counters at the rear of the vehicle. The city employee died immediately following the collision, and his estate brought a wrongful death action against the driver, seeking both compensatory damages for the deceased’s widow and compensatory and punitive damages for the estate. The defendant brought a motion to bifurcate the trial, so that evidence of his drug use (Xanax, methadone, and marijuana) would not be admitted and prejudice the jury. In light of his admission of liability, the defendant argued that such evidence was no longer probative with respect to determining whether or not he was liable for compensatory damages and punitive damages or for determining the amount of compensatory damages. The evidence was not excluded, and the defendant brought an appeal, arguing that permitting the evidence was in error.
The Second District Court of Appeal agreed. The Court found that, since the defendant had conceded liability with respect to both compensatory and punitive damages, evidence of his drug use was no longer relevant for determining liability for either sort of damages or with respect to determining the amount of compensatory damages. Although compensatory damages include “pain and suffering,” the court held that possible knowledge of drug use was not probative for determining the amount of damages reflecting loss of companionship and protection. In addition, the court held that, while evidence of drug use may be probative with respect to determining the amount of punitive damages, the amount of those damages would be handled in the second stage of the bifurcated trial, and thus the evidence of the drug use only served to inflame the jury during the first stage and lead to a possibly higher assessment of compensatory damages.
Had the defendant not conceded liability, evidence of the drug use may have been admitted to determine whether he was liable for the accident and thus influence the jury’s eventual determination of compensatory damages. By making the concession, the defendant proactively foreclosed introduction of the drug evidence and minimized risk of a higher compensatory damage valuation. In addition, punitive damages are typically capped, pursuant to 768.73(1)(a), Florida Statutes, at either three times the compensatory damages or $500,000. Thus, minimizing compensatory damages can play a role in minimizing exposure to higher punitive damages. However, § 768.736 removes the cap on punitive damages if the jury finds that drugs or alcohol impaired the defendant. Nonetheless, it is better to get into an argument about application of the cap after compensatory damages have already been determined rather than having the drug evidence play a role in the determination of those damages.
Swanson v. Robles demonstrates that it may be in a defendant’s interest, in the face of clear evidence of liability and risk of introduction of other inflammatory evidence, to concede liability in order to minimize overall monetary accountability. In addition, it shows how difficult it can be for a plaintiff to get full recovery for his or her injuries even when a liable party freely admits he is liable. Accordingly, if you are considering bringing a lawsuit for your South Florida motor vehicle accident, you should have the guidance of counsel with experience dealing with the legal ebbs and flows related to introduction of evidence and its impact on recovery. The attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are ready to hear your story and determine how to seek the best possible recovery for you. For a free consultation, click here or call 1-855-800-8000.