The Week In Torts – Cases from June 16, 2023
Fees, fees and more fees
FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY
VOLUME 48, NUMBER 24
CASES FROM THE WEEK OF JUNE 16, 2023
A PARTY NEED NOT PREVAIL TO BE ENTITLED TO FEES UNDER SECTION 768.79 – – STATUTE IS NOT A PREVAILING PARTY STATUTE BUT RATHER PUNISHMENT FOR A PARTY WHO REFUSES TO ACCEPT A GOOD FAITH PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT.
Coats v. RJ Reynolds, 48 Fla. Law Weekly S110 (Fla. Jun. 15, 2023):
In a tobacco trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $300,000 in compensatory damages and $16,000,000 in punitive damages. After reductions for comparative fault, the trial court entered judgment for $16,150,000.
On appeal, the appellate court reversed the punitive damages as excessive, and remanded for remittitur or in the alternative, for a new trial on punitive damages only.
Before trial, the plaintiff issued two proposals for settlement: the first for $75,000 and the second for $749,000. RJR did not accept either.
The Florida Supreme Court approved the Fifth District’s decision reversing for a new trial on punitive damages. However, the plaintiff still claimed entitlement to attorney’s fees based on the defendant’s rejection of her offers of judgment and the ultimate judgment, even though the plaintiff had not prevailed on appeal.
The Supreme Court agreed she was entitled.
The Court looked to the statute, applying the supremacy of text principal (the words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey in their context is what the text means). With those foundational principles in mind, the court looked at Section 768.79 finding that the statute itself refers to fee awards and costs as “penalties.” It further found that the statute contemplates fee awards to non-prevailing litigants.
The Florida Supreme Court concluded that it was not reasonable to hold that the legislature created a prevailing party requirement, when the statute’s text allows for awards to litigants who do not prevail.
The text of the offer of judgment statute contemplates a situation where a party is entitled to fees, even if the other party prevails on the most significant issues at trial.
The court provisionally granted the plaintiff reasonable appellate attorney’s fees conditioned on a finding of entitlement under the statute.
NO ERROR IN TRIAL COURT’S DENAL OF PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR PREVAILING PARTY ATTORNEY’S FEES AFTER DEFENDANT UNSUCCESSFULLY SOUGHT TO HAVE THE PARTIES SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT SET ASIDE – – THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT DID NOT CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY STATE THAT THE PARTIES INTENDED TO AWARD FEES TO THE PREVAILING PARTY ON THE MOTION TO SET ASIDE A SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT.
41 Acquisition Holdings v. Haff, 48 Fla. Law Weekly D1127 (Fla. 3rd DCA Jun. 7, 2023):
In this probate dispute, the parties entered into a settlement agreement which included a provision for attorney’s fees resulting from any breach of the agreement. One party asserted the other breached the agreement, after that party almost immediately failed to execute the necessary documents. It then moved the trial court to compel compliance with the settlement agreement and the closing on a sale. The other party moved to set aside the settlement agreement, alleging incapacity at the time of the entry, based on undo influence by her attorney.
While the trial court agreed that the party allegedly breached the agreement, it noted that attorney’s fees are generally not recoverable unless a statute or contract specifically authorizes their recovery.
In this case, while the settlement agreement contained a provision for attorney’s fees, it was far from clear and unambiguous. Both parties acknowledged that the provision was missing a verb, and that the attorney’s fees clause comingled several separate objectives into one clause, lacking language directing an award of fees for prevailing on a motion to set aside the agreement. As a result, the trial court properly refused to award fees.
AWARD OF A FEE’S AFFIRMED UNDER PROPOSAL FOR SETTLEMENT WHERE THE RECORD SHOWED THE TRIAL COURT CONSIDERED EACH STATUTORY FACTOR, PROVIDED A CHRONOLOGY OF THE CASE, AND SET FORTH OTHER RELEVANT CRITERIA BEFORE AWARDING FEES.
Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida v. Lewis Teinpl, 48 Fla. Law Weekly D1129 (Fla. 3rd DCA Jun. 7, 2023):
The record revealed that the trial court carefully considered each factor contained within Section 768.79 along with the chronology of the case and other relevant criteria in arriving at an award for attorney’s fees under proposal for settlement.
Because competent substantial evidence supported the findings, the court discerned no abusive discretion and affirmed the judgment.
TRIAL COURT ABUSED DISCRETION BY DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO TRANSFER VENUE FROM BROWARD COUNTY TO INDIAN RIVER COUNTY.
Waters Edge Dermatology v. Christopherson, 48 Fla. Law Weekly D1142 (Fla. 4th DCA Jun. 7, 2023):
The defendant medical providers had treated the plaintiff in its Vero Beach location located in Indian River County. The plaintiff later developed skin cancer and sued the defendants in Broward County.
The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that she resided in Indian River County, but Broward was a proper venue because at the time the defendants treated the plaintiff, one or more of the defendants resided in Broward County. Also, the corporate defendant kept an office for the transaction of its business in Broward County.
The providers principal place of business, however, was located elsewhere, and the doctor resided in Martin County. The Broward County Courthouse is 120 miles south of the provider’s Vero Beach office.
The defendants moved to transfer venue to the 19th Judicial Circuit arguing forum non conveniens as a basis. It attached a doctor’s affidavit in support and the defendant, attesting that Broward County was an inconvenient venue because neither he nor any of the provider’s staff involved in treating the patient, resided or practiced in Broward County. The doctor also stated that the patient had received treatment in the Vero Beach office and that it would be substantially more convenient for the material witnesses if the venue was transferred.
The defendants later amended their motion specifying Indian River County as the preferred transferred venue. In an affidavit, the defendant doctor’s widow (after his death), a resident of Martin County, noted that Broward County would pose a substantial hardship to her as a single parent to a young child.
The plaintiff attached affidavits of six individuals (relatives, her oncologist, and friends). None of them resided in Broward County, but all said that Broward County would not be inconvenient. The trial court denied the motion to transfer.
In looking at Section 47.122, the court observed that there are three statutory factors a court must consider in determining whether to grant a motion to transfer venue: (1) the convenience of the parties; (2) the convenience of the witnesses; and (3) the interest of justice. The convenience of the witnesses is the single most important consideration of the factors.
The court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion to transfer based on forum non conveniens, in a case where there was only an attenuated connection to the venue that bore no relationship to the lawsuit’s critical events.
Here, the factors favored Indian River County as the patient, provider, doctor, and provider’s staff were all located there. While the law firm representing the plaintiff was located in Broward County, the convenience of the attorneys is usually accorded very little if any weight. Additionally, Broward County is a larger, more populus county, has crowded dockets and the community has virtually no connection to the case. The interest of justice strongly favored change of venue to Indian River County.