Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal Grants New Trial to Determine Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death Rear-end Car Accident Case

In personal injury actions, an injured party or estate can sometimes seek punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages for medical care and lost wages. Punitive damages are intended to penalize a negligent actor for intentional misconduct and gross negligence. An injured party must show with clear and convincing evidence that the negligent person or entity knew that her or his behavior was wrong and had a high probability of resulting in an injury, or the party’s behavior was so reckless or wanton that it equaled a conscious disregard or indifference to life. The state of Florida limits the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded to an injured party. Typically, the damages awarded cannot exceed either the greater of three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000.  If the behavior is considered egregious or unreasonably dangerous, the cap may be increased to either four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million.

A recent Court of Appeal lawsuit (Case No. 5D16-863) analyzes a punitive damages award in a rear-end car accident case that resulted in serious injuries and death to the driver and passenger of the front car. The defendant was convicted of two charges of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to two life sentences. The injured driver and administrator of the deceased passenger’s estate filed suit against the drunk driver, originally alleging wrongful death and negligence. Eventually, the complaint was amended to include a claim for punitive damages, based on the drunk driver’s .302 percent blood alcohol level.

The trial was separated into two parts – one to determine the negligence and the compensatory damages and another for the punitive damages. The deceased victim’s estate was awarded $244,419 in damages, and the seriously injured driver received $75,144.35. At the beginning of the punitive damages portion of the trial, both parties submitted proposed jury instructions that differed significantly on the inclusion or exclusion of the defendant’s financial assets. The injured parties objected to the defendant’s desire to tell the jury of his limited resources. The plaintiffs believed that he would benefit by arguing he was in jail and unable to pay. The judge allowed jury instructions that advised they may consider the defendant’s financial resources but omitted the defendant’s proposed phrase admonishing that the jury “may not award an amount that would financially destroy the defendant.”

The jury heard testimony from the defendant’s mother that documented the lack of assets, bank accounts, employment, or expectation of future employment. She also relayed that from the time of the accident to the time of the deposition, the defendant lived in her home. Even after this testimony, the jury awarded punitive damages of $750,000 to the estate of the deceased passenger and $500,000 to the seriously injured driver. The defendant appealed, requesting a new trial on the punitive damages and alleging the trial court should have included the directive to not award an amount that would financially destroy him, as found in the Florida Standard Jury Instructions (Civ.) 503.1(c)(2).

These standardized instructions allow the phrase requested by the defendant when the defendant’s net worth has been introduced. The appellate court found that the defendant both properly requested the use of the instruction and appropriately presented evidence of his net worth to the jury during the punitive damages phase of the trial. The appellate court determined the second part of the standardized instruction should have been included, since the trial court allowed the consideration and instruction regarding the defendant’s net worth. The court agreed with the defendant-appellant that if the jury had been advised it could not “financially destroy” him, it would not have awarded damages totaling $1.25 million. The court reversed and remanded the punitive damages award, granting a new trial.

The South Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston can aggressively pursue the damages you deserve. Call 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999 for a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016

Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016