Florida Second District Affirms $12 Million Punitive Damages Award in Wrongful Death Action

Florida’s statutes for punitive damages have gone through changes over the last 20 years. A recent decision issued by the Second District Court of Appeal (No. 2D16-1603) addresses arguments centered on which version of the punitive damages statute applied in a wrongful death action. In this case, a tobacco company appealed a second amended final judgment in favor of a daughter acting as the personal representative of her mother’s estate. The daughter filed a Florida wrongful death action against the tobacco company, alleging her mother’s death was caused by the company’s negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy to commit fraudulent concealment.

The daughter was awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found the company to be 60% responsible for the compensatory damages, awarding nearly $3 million. It also awarded over $12 million in punitive damages as related to the conspiracy and concealment claims. The trial court had previously vacated the punitive damages award, which was then reinstated by the Second District Court of Appeal. Upon remand, the daughter moved for entry of the full amount into the judgment, but the company objected. It argued the punitive damages were subject to the post-1999 statutory cap. The trial court overruled the objection and entered the full amount of damages awarded, including interest. The tobacco company appealed.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s determination that section 768.73(1)(a) and (b), Florida Statutes (1995) applied rather than the post-1999 version that requires punitive damages to be capped at the amount that is three times greater than the compensatory damages award. The tobacco company had argued the post-1999 version applied because the daughter’s wrongful death action was based on her mother’s death in 2007. The company also attempted to argue that even if the pre-1999 version of the punitive damages statute applied, the daughter fell short of the legal requirements by not showing the damages award was supported by clear and convincing evidence.

The legislative history indicates the 1999 amendments apply only to causes of action that arise after the effective date of the act. The appellate court agreed that the applicable version of the statute is the one ‘in effect when the cause of action arose.’ The court did not agree with the tobacco company’s argument that the cause of action arose with the decedent’s death. While that is the case in many wrongful death lawsuits, this case is a part of a class of actions against tobacco companies for those who suffered tobacco-related diseases that manifested by November 21, 1996. The decedent suffered from or was diagnosed with several qualifying conditions to be a member of the class of plaintiffs in this series of lawsuits on or before this date. At no point did the jury dispute the decedent’s status.

The tobacco company also tried to claim that punitive damages were not subject to this classification. Again, the appellate court disagreed, since they had previously ruled a claim for punitive damages is not a separate, free-standing cause of action in an earlier, similar decision. The appellate court additionally determined the tobacco company had waived the argument that the three-to-one cap should apply. The court found the tobacco company did not argue the cap should be imposed until the hearing in 2016 after the first appeal was reversed. The court ruled the company was procedurally barred from raising the argument on this appeal. The appellate court also found the daughter showed there was clear and convincing evidence to support the award when she addressed the issue out of caution. The Court of Appeal declined to reverse the lower court’s ruling and affirmed the ruling imposing the judgment for the full compensatory and punitive damages award plus interest.

A deep understanding of wrongful death law is essential in complex litigation like this case. The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston are here to help you maximize the damages you need and deserve. Call today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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