Florida Third District Court of Appeal Quashes Motion Allowing Claim for Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death Action

In Florida, an injured party or representative of an estate can pursue punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages in a Florida personal injury case if the plaintiff can show there is a reasonable basis for recovery of such damages. A defendant can only be held liable if the trier of fact finds the defendant engaged in either intentional misconduct or gross negligence. This finding must be based on clear and convincing evidence, a higher burden of proof than what is required for compensatory damages. The claim for punitive damages may be added following Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.190(f).

The Third District Court of Appeal tackled a question regarding punitive damages in a recently issued decision (No. 3D17-1315). The parents and personal representatives of a deceased child filed suit against the owners, managers, and maintenance companies for the apartment complex where the fatal accident occurred. Their son died after a driveway gate fell on him. The parents moved to amend the initial claim to add one for punitive damages. Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.190(f) requires the plaintiffs to attach their proposed amended complaint to the motion. The parents included facts to help support their reasonable basis for recovery, but they only attached the amended complaint with the claims for punitive damages after the trial court had granted the motion to amend.

The defendants objected, and the appellate court agreed the Florida civil rule requires the party filing a motion to amend to attach the proposed amended pleading to the motion. The parents attempted to argue the rule allows plaintiffs to file a separate motion when the proposed amendment only adds a punitive damages claim. The Court of Appeal determined there’s no waiver or ability to dispense with the requirement within the body of the rule, applicable statutes, or relevant case law.

The Court of Appeal also felt the motion was lacking in many other areas. It was hard to differentiate the defendant corporate entities from one another, and the evidence provided did not support either allegation of gross negligence or intentional misconduct by individual employees of the corporate defendants. The Court of Appeal noted the parents did not file and provide a copy of the deposition transcripts 20 or more days before the hearing, which is also required by the applicable Florida rule of civil procedure.

If the defendant in a personal injury action is a corporate defendant, it is not enough to allege an employee engaged in grossly negligent or intentional misconduct. The injured person must show the corporation, employer, principal, or other legal entity actively knew of the intentional misconduct; the officers, directors, principal, or managers of the employer knowingly condoned or consented to the offending conduct; or the principal, corporation, or employer engaged in grossly negligent conduct that contributed to the loss, injury, or damages suffered. Individuals were mentioned in the motion to amend, but the appellate court did not think the parents adequately connected the individuals’ respective behavior to the employer.

Based on the collective evidence and arguments before it, the Court of Appeal determined the claim for punitive damages should not have been allowed. The defendants’ petition was granted, and the order granting the parents’ motion to amend was quashed. Since the defendants petitioned for a writ of certiorari prior to a jury trial, this appeal only dealt with the claim for punitive damages, so the parents are able to continue their pursuit of compensatory wrongful death damages.

The Florida wrongful death attorneys of Donaldson & Weston have the experience you need to navigate through the procedural forests of civil litigation. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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

Florida Court of Appeal Allows Injured Motorist to Pursue Additional PIP Payments to Medical Providers, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2017