Recently, a Florida appellate court issued an opinion in response to a defendant’s motion for certiorari review. The record indicates that the defendant drove under the influence of alcohol and marijuana and ran his car into the plaintiff and seven other pedestrians. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant, and while the civil case was pending, the defendant pleaded guilty in a related criminal case. After the defendant pled guilty, the plaintiff moved to amend his complaint to add a claim for punitive damages.
The lower court held a hearing to determine whether the plaintiff met the evidentiary burden necessary for punitive damages claims. The defendant’s attorney contended that the law requires the court to find clear, convincing evidence that the plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages. The defendant’s attorney conceded that the relevant statute does not discuss the burden, but rather the court’s gatekeeping function. Moreover, they argued that the plaintiff must make a “reasonable showing” that there is a “reasonable basis” for the damages.
Under Florida Statutes Section 768.72(1), punitive damages will not be permitted unless the claimant proffers a reasonable showing for a basis for the claim. The issue is whether the statute requires the trial court to make an “express or affirmative” finding of a basis for punitive damages.
In this case, the trial court held a hearing on the motion and considered the plaintiff’s evidence. The evidence included a copy of the criminal complaint against the defendant, a copy of the sentencing guidelines and worksheet, and a report from the officer who responded to the accident scene. At the end of the hearing, the trial judge granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend the claim based on the evidence the plaintiff offered. The court reasoned that Florida case law does not require a trial court to make an “affirmative finding” of a reasonable evidentiary basis. Here, the trial court reviewed the court file, the parties’ filings, and heard arguments. Although, the court did not make an express or affirmative finding, it heard the evidence, acknowledged its gatekeeping function, and determined whether the amendment was appropriate. Ultimately, the appellate court denied the defendant’s petition, and allowed the plaintiff’s amendment to stand.
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