The new law should limit the overall tort liability confronted by all types of companies and individuals who find themselves facing a lawsuit in Florida. This update focuses on the changes for statutes of limitation, comparative negligence and the admissibility of evidence of medical charges at trial. Florida courts will undoubtedly see many challenges to the new law over the next few years.
As things stand, a spouse who marries a decedent post-injury cannot recover wrongful death damages in the Fourth District but can recover such damages in the Fifth District. All eyes are on the Florida Supreme Court to resolve the confusion, contradiction and uncertainty facing some Florida litigants related to wrongful death claims.
For many litigators, sworn testimony today looks much different than it did two years ago. As the COVID-19 pandemic has required parties to limit travel and in-person proceedings, remote testimony for depositions, arbitrations and even trials has become the rule rather than the exception. With this transition, litigators have been confronted with unique circumstances and felt compelled to ask questions to confirm that the witness’s testimony is that of the witness, and only the witness. For example, is anyone else present in the room with the witness? Does the witness have any unauthorized lines of communication that could be used while the sworn testimony is proceeding? It has now become critical to ask a witness to swear under oath that there is no one else in the room with the witness and that no person is authorized to communicate with the witness during her or his testimony. Several recent decisions solidify this practice point and illustrate the consequences to litigants and lawyers when a witness surreptitiously communicates with others during the course of remote testimony.
The Florida Supreme Court has accepted a proposed rule amendment to permit interlocutory appeals of court orders on punitive damages claims. On January 6, 2022, the Florida Supreme Court approved by 6-1 an amendment to Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.130 to allow interlocutory appeals of nonfinal orders granting or denying leave to amend a complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages. Prior to this amendment, a party could only appeal such an order by petitioning for a writ of certiorari. And in that posture, the appellate court’s review was limited only to whether the trial court complied with the procedural requirements for making such a claim.
Practically, this means Florida appellate courts will be able to immediately review trial court orders regarding punitive damages claims on both procedural and substantive grounds. With this amendment, the merits of a plaintiff’s punitive damages claim can now be appealed prior to any discovery of a defendant’s financial information. The new rule takes effect April 1, 2022.
On October 7, 2020, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a defense verdict in favor of a medical device manufacturer and in doing so approved of the trial court’s use of the risk-utility test and not the consumer expectations test in the jury instructions. Cavanaugh v. Stryker Corp., — So. 2d —, 2020 WL 5937405 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 7, 2020). The wrongful death lawsuit was filed against multiple defendants, including the manufacturer of a medical device used to remove blood and clear the surgical field, following the death of a patient during lung removal surgery. The claims against the medical device manufacturer included strict liability design defect, strict liability failure to warn, and negligence.
The plaintiff settled with several health care professionals and only the claims against the manufacturer proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff proposed a jury instruction where the jury could find that the product was unreasonably dangerous if the plaintiff established either the consumer expectations test (which determines liability based on whether the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used as intended or when used in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer) or the risk-utility test (which determines liability based on whether the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The defendant manufacturer, however, proposed that the jury instruction include only the risk-utility test (a product is unreasonably dangerous if the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s proposed instruction and adopted the defendant’s risk-utility instruction.
In 2013, spurred by the decisions in Marsh and Hood, the Florida Legislature amended F.S. 90.702 to mirror Federal Rule of Evidence 702. In a preamble to the final bill, the Legislature expressed its intent to (1) adopt the standards set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Daubert trilogy and (2) prohibit “pure opinion testimony as provided in Marsh…”
The Plaintiff’s Bar Parries
Ordinarily, this definitive a legislative adoption of Daubert and rejection of Frye and pure opinion would be the end of the story. But Florida plaintiffs’ lawyers immediately mounted a challenge to the amendment based on the separation of powers provisions of the Florida Constitution, and they had a liberal and receptive Supreme Court.