The Week In Torts – Cases from December 23, 2023
Whoa, that is too much!
FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY
VOLUME 48, NUMBER 1
CASES FROM THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 23, 2022
PUNITIVE DAMAGES AWARDED IN A WRONGFUL DEATH CASE MUST BEAR A REASONABLE RELATIONSHIP TO THE AMOUNT OF DAMAGES PROVED, AND THE INJURIES SUFFERED BY THE STATUTORY BENEFICIARIES
Coates v. R. J. Reynolds, 48 Fla. L. Weekly S1 (Fla. Jan. 6, 2023):
The plaintiff brought a wrongful death action in a tobacco case on behalf of her sister who died from lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking. The jury found for the plaintiff on her strict liability theory, but rejected the other theories (negligence, fraud, and conspiracy).
The jury found each of the decedent’s three adult children sustained $100,000 in damages for the loss of their parental companionship, guidance and mental pain and suffering. The jury also found that the decedent’s negligence caused 50% of the damages.
The jury then awarded $16 million in punitive damages.
- J. Reynolds filed a motion for new trial or remittitur arguing that the punitive damages award was excessive. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion.
The Fifth District began its analysis with a review of the “text” of § 768.73 and § 768.74. It reiterated that it follows the “supremacy-of-text principle” (that the words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey in their context is what the text means).
The two statutes at issue involve limitations on punitive damages and remittitur. Reading them together, the court concluded that § 768.73(1)(a) caps an award of punitive damages at a ratio of 3:1 with the compensatory damages. It further found that § 768.74 allows for a review of an award that is challenged as excessive, regardless of whether the award falls inside or outside the 3:1 cap.
Therefore, even though the facts and circumstances allow a punitive damages award to exceed the 3:1 presumptive cap under the statute, the analysis does not end there. The trial court must also review the challenged award for excessiveness under § 768.74.
In this case, the punitive damage award amounted to a 106.7:1 ratio against the compensatory award. The plaintiff acknowledged the statutory cap, but argued that the compensatory damages did not reflect the actual injuries suffered because the statutory beneficiaries do not recover damages for the decedent’s death.
Plaintiff asserted that failing to recognize the death as the real injury disregards the sanctity of life, by allowing a tortfeasor to be punished to a lesser extent in a case where the injured person dies as a result of tortious conduct then in a case where the injured person survives.
The court rejected the argument, finding that the legislature made a policy choice to exclude death as a cognizable injury in wrongful death actions, recognizing instead that the injury is one suffered by the statutory beneficiaries.
The court agreed that the trial court abused its discretion in denying remittitur of the $16 million punitive damages award. Although the court would not say it was unreasonable to conclude that the facts and circumstances supported departing from the 3:1 cap of the statute, the court felt that this amount did not bear reasonable relation to the amount of damages proved and the injuries suffered.
While higher dollar awards of punitive damages have been proven in other tobacco cases, the court noted that the damages in this case sat in stark contrast to those cases where there were much larger compensatory damage awards.
In reversing, the Fifth District certified a question about whether it is an abuse of discretion for a trial court to deny a remittitur of a punitive damages award, when the award does not bear a reasonable relationship to the amount of damages suffered.
COURT REVERSES SUMMARY JUDGMENT ENTERED FOR THE UNIVERSITY DEFENDANT IN A CASE WHERE AN ATHLETE DIED BASED ON AN UNENFORCEABLE EXCULPATORY CLAUSE – ON CROSS APPEAL, COURT ALSO RULED THAT THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT TO ADD A CLAIM FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES WHERE THE RECORD EVIDENCE FELL SHORT OF DEMONSTRATING GROSS NEGLIGENCE
Estate of Blakeley v. Stetson University, 48 Fla. Law Weekly D45 (Fla. 5th DCA Dec. 30, 2022):
A scholarship football player at Stetson played two seasons (his freshman and sophomore years) before he died from cardiac arrest. On the day he died, the athlete had pulled himself out of a football practice in August, complaining that he was feeling dizzy and that his chest felt tight. The assistant athletic trainer took the young man to the sideline, checked his pulse, gave him water, removed his helmet, loosened his shoulder pads and had him stand in the shade. After resting 45 minutes on the sideline, the young man collapsed. While Stetson called 911 and attempted various emergency medical procedures, the young man ultimately died at the hospital.
There was also record evidence that the young man had suffered chest pain four months before that resolved in a few minutes, and also had some experiences in high school that he advised the trainers of. There was additional record evidence that on the morning he died, he had advised the head athletic trainer that he was not feeling well, had a bad cough and chest congestion, as well as shallow breathing, and the trainer believed he had a fever and took no further action.
Before he began playing, the young man signed a release and waiver acknowledging the risks of playing football, and assuming all of the risks associated with his participation, agreeing to hold Stetson harmless for any and all liability.
However, the clause did not mention the release of Stetson’s own negligence (even though there are cases that say that is not necessary), and also contained contradictory and ambiguous provisions which the court found rendered the release unenforceable.
Immediately preceding the exculpatory clause, the young man was advised that it was important that he comply with the team’s medical staff instructions regarding conditioning and treatment and was required to obey those instructions. The court felt this could have been interpreted to mean that the university would be supervising his training, and instructing him properly and non-negligently, and that he was only being asked to sign an exculpatory clause to cover injuries inherent in the sport.
Additionally, the release stated that it was being done “for” myself, not “by” myself which could mean that if the young man had followed the instructions of the athletic directors, he would be released from liability.
The court held that the combination of the factors and the language of the release supported that the exculpatory clause was not clear and unambiguous and therefore unenforceable.
The court also reversed the trial judge’s decision to allow the plaintiff to amend her complaint to have a claim for punitive damages. The court found that in taking the evidence as proffered in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the evidence failed to evince the character of negligence necessary to sustain an award of punitive damages. Such evidence must be of a gross and flagrant character, evincing reckless disregard of human life or of the safety of persons exposed to its dangerous effects, or showing an entire want of care to raise the presumption of a conscious indifference to consequences. Punitive behavior shows wantonness or recklessness or a gross andy careless disregard of the safety and welfare of the public, and a reckless indifference to their rights.
The court found that as a matter of law the plaintiff’s evidence as detailed above fell short of the meaning of that standard.
DEFENDANT’S PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT AND RELEASE WAS CLEAR AND UNIMBIGUOUS NOTWITHSTANDING ALLEGEDLY CONFLICTING PROVISIONS AND A TYPO IN RELEASE – READ AS A WHOLE THERE WERE NO AMBIGUTITIES THAT COULD REASONABLY AFFECT THE PLAINTIFF’S DECISION AS TO WHETHER TO ACCEPT THE PROPOSAL
Publix Supermarkets v. Alford, 48 Fla. L. Weekly D47 (Fla. 2nd DCA Dec. 30, 2022):
Publix served a proposal for settlement offering $25,001 to settle all claims being brought against it in this slip and fall case. The proposal incorporated a general release form.
After losing the trial, the plaintiff asserted that the language of the proposal was internally inconsistent creating an ambiguity.
Specifically, the proposal stated that the defendant would pay the total sum of $25,001.00 in full settlement of all the plaintiff’s claims of “whatever nature which have been or could have been asserted against this Defendant…”.
Later, a provision stated that the proposal was intended to resolve all damages that would otherwise be awarded in a final judgment in the action as related to the amount stated in paragraph 3.
The plaintiff also asserted that the general release failed to identify who she would be releasing by its execution making that ambiguous also, because there was an asterisk (and no words) after where it said who the releasor would be releasing.
The court found the provisions were clear and that the release could have only been applied to the one defendant sued in the case. The court refused to strike the proposal based on a “cut and paste typographical error” that did not create any ambiguity that could have reasonably affected the plaintiff’s decision as to whether to hold the proposal and the release did not have any ambiguities that prevented the plaintiff from evaluating the terms and conditions.