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Attorneys Examine Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals Decision Granting New Trial on Punitive Damages

While injury victims pursue personal injury lawsuits to obtain compensation for economic losses, pain and suffering, and other harm experienced because of careless or inattentive conduct, some forms of behavior merit a different form of damages. Unlike compensatory damages, exemplary or punitive damages serve the function of punishing a wrongdoer and discouraging recidivism. Although the amount awarded can be substantial, Florida law applies caps on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded and imposes a higher evidentiary standard. In this blog, our Miami personal injury attorneys review a recent court decision wherein a Florida appellate court made the task of pursuing punitive damages even more difficult. 

In Persaud v. Cortes, et al, the plaintiff in a lawsuit involving a rear-end collision sued a drunk driver. The intoxicated motorist caused the driver of the vehicle struck from the rear to suffer serious injury while a passenger in the vehicle died. The estate of the decedent and injured driver filed a lawsuit seeking both compensatory and punitive damages against the alcohol-impaired driver. There was not much dispute regarding the fact the defendant was intoxicated since he had a breath alcohol concentration (BAC) of .32.

The plaintiffs prevailed in the trial regarding liability and compensatory damages. The just awarded over $244,000 in compensatory damages to the estate of the decedent and over $75,000 in damages to the injured passenger. In the punitive damage portion of the lawsuit, a dispute arose regarding the appropriate jury instruction.

Under Florida law, the plaintiff must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant knew his or her wrongful conduct had a high probability of causing injury or that the conduct was so wanton and reckless that it revealed a conscious disregard for the life of others. Our state also caps punitive damage awards at three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000. When the conduct is unreasonably dangerous or egregious, the cap rises to four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million.

The judge approved instructions that permitted the jury to consider the defendant's financial status when considering punitive damages. The defendant's mom testified regarding the defendant's paucity of financial means, unemployment, meager earning potential, and lack of bank accounts. The mom of the defendant also told the jury that the defendant had been living in her home because of his limited financial resources.

Despite this evidence, the jury awarded $500,000 to the driver who experienced serious injury and $750,000 to the estate of the decedent. The defendant appealed the punitive damage award, contending the trial judge committed reversible error by refusing to give an instruction that the jury cannot "award an amount that would financial destroy the defendant" pursuant to Florida Standard Jury Instructions (Civ.) 503.1(c)(2). Under Florida law, this instruction is proper when the jury has been allowed to consider the financial circumstances (net worth) of the defendant.
The appellate court concluded that the testimony regarding the defendant's net worth was properly introduced, so the requested jury instruction should have been provided. The 5th DCA also reasoned that the cumulative $1,250,000 punitive damage award would financially destroy the defendant. Based on these holdings, the case was remanded to the trial court for a new trial on the issue of punitive damages.

Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano: Seeking Maximum Recovery for Serious Injury and Wrongful Death Victims and Families

Given the complex issues that can complicate obtaining a punitive damage award, injury victims should seek out an experienced personal injury attorney even when liability is clear. Our lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance clients need to pursue the results they desire. For over 130 collective years, our firm has assisted accident victims in personal injury and wrongful death actions across South Florida. We seek to obtain compensation for your tangible and intangible damages, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. Our skill and dedication have earned us an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and recognition as one of South Florida's top firms by the Miami Herald. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.

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