Under the common law, collateral source evidence was generally inadmissible for both determinations of liability and damages. Finding that this rule promoted double recovery in certain instances, the Florida legislature abrogated this rule in the 1980s and adopted the current set-off rule, which requires a trial court, with certain exceptions, to reduce a damages award by “the total of all amounts which have been paid for the benefit of the claimant, or which are otherwise available to the claimant, from all collateral sources.” Fla. Stat. § 768.76 (1). Although the collateral source rule was abrogated with respect to damages, Florida courts have found the impact of the rule limited with respect to the evidence admissible to a jury for making a determination of liability. However, the Florida Supreme Court articulated one major expectation to the common law collateral source rule in Fla. Physician’s Ins. Reciprocal v. Stanley, 452 So. 2d 514 (Fla. 1984). In Stanley, the court held that “evidence of free or low cost services from governmental or [charities] available to anyone with specific disabilities is admissible on the issue of future damages.” Given the uniqueness of this rule, Florida courts have after struggled with its application and, in many cases, limited it to the particular facts. For example, the Supreme Court of Florida was once again called upon to grapple with the scope of Stanley in Joerg v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co.
The facts underlying Joerg are quite unfortunate. The plaintiff in this case was a developmentally disabled adult who was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in November 2007. The plaintiff had lived with his parents for his entire life and had never been employed. Following this accident, the plaintiff brought a negligence suit against the driver of the other vehicle and his personal uninsured motorist insurer, State Farm Mutual. Prior to trial, the plaintiff filed a motion to limit introduction of evidence about collateral sources, including benefits under Medicare and Medicaid. The trial court ultimately ruled that the insurer could introduce evidence of “future medical bills for specific treatments that are available . . . to all citizens regardless of wealth or status” but that evidence of future Medicare and Medicaid payments could not be introduced. The insurer appealed, and the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court ruling, except finding that the future Medicare payments should not have been excluded under the collateral source rule. An appeal to the Florida Supreme Court followed.
The key issue before the Supreme Court was whether the evidence of entitlement to future Medicare benefits should be admissible. Under the broad language employed in Stanley, it would seem that Medicare benefits, which are an entitlement that exists for all irrespective of wealth, should be admitted. However, the Supreme Court found that the evidence was inadmissible for several reasons.
First, the court noted that Medicare retains a right to reimbursement and may seek reimbursement against an award for future medical expenses if it has made a conditional payment for such expenses. This reimbursement right undermines one of the primary policy rationales for the application of the Florida set-off rule, the risk of double recovery. Second, the court noted the risk of prejudice when a jury is presented with evidence of a collateral source, including the risk that the jury may believe that the plaintiff is someone who gratuitously seeks government benefits. Third, the court noted that the federal government retains the ability to adapt new laws at any time, and therefore the evidence of future benefits was entirely speculative. Finally, the court invoked the policy rationale for the common law collateral source rule, which found that barring evidence of collateral sources helps ensure that a person who commits a tort does not receive a windfall based on benefits available to the plaintiff that are wholly independent of the acts of the person who commits the tort. Given the foregoing, particularly the lack of fit with policy goals, the Supreme Court further limited Stanley, holding that evidence of future Medicare and Medicaid benefits, or benefits for which there is a right to reimbursement, should not be admitted.
It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court of Florida will ever overturn Stanley in its entirety. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s ruling shows that collateral source evidence remains an active issue. Indeed, given the likelihood that evidence regarding collateral sources can help reduce liability, defendants in personal injury cases will often seek to introduce this evidence regarding a plaintiff’s potential collateral sources, and anyone asserting a personal injury claim should be prepared to contest the admission of such evidence. The rules of evidence involve the weighing of many competing interests, and many litigants would benefit from the assistance of an experienced trial lawyer who is capable of helping ensure that the evidence proffered at trial is appropriately limited. The South Florida pedestrian accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented injured Floridians and are experienced in the considerable legal wrangling that takes place prior to trial. If you have a possible personal injury claim and are curious about your claim’s viability, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.