Articles Posted in Damages

Recently, an appellate court issued an opinion addressing whether Florida’s 1970 Pollutant Discharge Prevention and Control Act allows a plaintiff’s cause of action for personal injuries. The plaintiff worked for a Florida tow truck company and suffered injuries when he arrived at the scene of an accident between a truck transporting batteries and another vehicle. The plaintiff alleged that he suffered serious injuries after coming into contact with battery acid leaking from the truck. He filed a lawsuit against the trucking company claiming that they were strictly liable for his injuries under the 1970 and 1983 pollution acts. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him over $5million in damages; however, the district court reversed reasoning that the 1970 statute precluded his claim to personal injury damages.

Pollutants often pose significant threats of danger to Florida residents and the environment. In response to growing concerns regarding exposure to these pollutants, the legislature enacted Florida’s 1970 Pollutant Discharge Prevention and Control Act (1970 Act) and the 1983 Water Quality Assurance Act (1983 Act), which regulates the discharge and removal of certain pollutants. Legislature designed the acts to ensure that these entities are diligent in their handling of these potentially dangerous materials.

The 1970 act provides that the discharge of pollutants upon lands adjoining the coast, tidal flats, and coastal water is prohibited. The 1983 law expanded upon the 1970 act and provided injury victims with a cause of action for harms resulting from pollution of ground and surface waters. The 1970 act defines damages as the destruction to or loss of any real or personal property, except human beings. Unlike the 1970 law, the 1983 act does not provide any definition of damages within its statute. However, the 1983 act provides that injury victims may be able to recover “all damages” resulting from the discharge or other conditions of pollution. The amended 1970 act states that it applies to actions taken by both private and governmental entities when injuries result from the storage, transportation, and disposal of these products.

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.

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;

In a recent Florida wrongful death case, the Florida Supreme Court reversed an intermediate appellate court’s decision that placed a limit on the amount of damages that a person could obtain through a wrongful death lawsuit.

The Facts

The specific facts of the case are less important than its holding. However, the case involved a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a plaintiff against a tobacco company. The plaintiff claimed that the tobacco company was responsible for her mother’s early death at the age of fifty-eight. The plaintiff was forty-two at the time of her mother’s death. There was extensive testimony regarding the closeness of the plaintiff’s relationship with her mother.

The case proceeded to trial, and the jury awarded the plaintiff $4.5 million in damages for the loss of her mother. The defendant tobacco company filed a motion with the court, asking it to reduce the damages amount, but the motion was denied. The tobacco company appealed.

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Florida is among many states that apply the “impact rule” in tort litigation. Generally, the impact rule provides that “a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another” only if “the emotional distress suffered . . . flow[s] from physical injuries the plaintiff sustained in an impact.” Fla. Dep’t of Corrs. v. Abril, 969 So. 2d 201, 206 (Fla. 2007). Although there are many exceptions to the application of the impact rule, this limitation on recovery for emotional damages leads to considerable chagrin among many litigants in Florida courts. For instance, in a recent decision, G4S Secure Solutions USA, Inc. v. Golzar, the Third District Court of Appeal foreclosed the recovery of emotional damages in a case involving a Peeping Tom employed as a security guard at a South Florida residential community.

The defendant in this action, G4S Secure Solutions USA, Inc. (“Wackenhut”), provides private security services throughout the United States. Around November 2008, Wackenhut hired the security officer who performed in the aforementioned peeping incident at the heart of this case. At the time of the security officer’s hiring, Wackenhut performed an investigation of the security officer’s background and uncovered a California misdemeanor conviction for disorderly conduct in 2004. Although the security officer had not disclosed the incident on his application, Wackenhut chose not to investigate the incident further. It was later revealed that the specific conduct for which the security officer was convicted under California’s disorderly conduct statute was prowling and peeking into an inhabited building.

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Although the end of a trial often means finality, seasoned litigators understand that, at least in some cases, it may simply be a precursor to protracted appellate battles. Indeed, a favorable ruling for a plaintiff is often not secure, for dissatisfied defendants will often take the case to an appellate court, seeking reversal on any ground possible. As the plaintiff in Ortega v. Belony, a recent case before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, now knows, a trial court victory is often just the beginning.

Ortega arose from a motor vehicle accident in Miami-Dade County. As a result of the collision, the driver of one of the vehicles involved, who is the plaintiff in this case, suffered a broken neck. The plaintiff was hospitalized for eight days following the accident. Rather than undergoing surgery to repair the injury, the plaintiff elected to wear a “halo” for three months. During his rehabilitation, the plaintiff had difficulty sleeping and needed assistance with ordinary tasks such as bathing. Following the three months, the halo was removed, and the plaintiff only complained of residual back pain. His neck had almost fully healed, but the plaintiff sought additional treatment from an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon recommended surgery. However, the plaintiff again declined and instead opted for an injection treatment. The treatment was successful, and by the time of the trial, the plaintiff did not have difficulty performing daily activities and had not returned to the surgeon for any additional treatments.

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In addition to determining fault, juries are often tasked with the responsibility of setting damages, the amount an injured party may recover from a liable party. Obviously, most jury members are not experts who are perfectly capable of setting a damages amount with mathematical certainty, and even though expert testimony is often enlisted to help guide juries, jury verdicts are often hotly disputed.  Although damages awards, like all jury determinations, are entitled to deference, a court does have discretion to alter a damages award it determines is too high or low. However, when a court exercises this power, disputes regarding the damages award are often just as bitter. Indeed, in a recent decision, Arnold v. Security Nat’l Ins. Co., the Fourth District Court of Appeal needed to address whether it was proper for a trial court to reduce a jury verdict the trial court considered excessive.

Arnold began with a car accident that left the plaintiff in this case seriously injured. The other driver did not have motor vehicle insurance, and the plaintiff brought suit against his personal uninsured motor vehicle insurance provider. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he suffered physical, emotional, and financial damage as a result of the uninsured driver’s negligence. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, at which the plaintiff produced expert testimony related to the past and future medical expenses he would likely incur as a result of a herniated disc resulting from the accident. His insurance company argued, however, that the plaintiff’s injuries were a result of prior injuries and dissociated, natural degenerative conditions.

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In certain legal areas in which expert testimony is of importance for determining liability, litigators will often form relationships with particular experts who provide testimony in their cases. However, a familiarity between experts and attorneys can raise issues regarding the propriety of the testimony provided. Indeed, many may question whether the testimony being provided by a purported expert is genuine or merely the function of an established course of prior dealings. This dynamic was addressed in a recent decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Vazquez v. Martinez.

Vazquez arose from a 2007 rear-end collision. The car of the plaintiff in this case was stopped at a red light when her car was rear-ended by a vehicle being driven by the defendant. The plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for damages arising from the collision. The case proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff sought to introduce evidence that payments that totaled over 700,000 dollars had been made by the defense or its agents to the expert witness testifying on behalf of the defendant over the past three years. The trial court permitted this evidence, and ultimately the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendant argued that admission of the testimony was improper. The Fifth District disagreed.

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