Florida’s Second District Overturns Punitive Damages Award Where Evidence Did Not Demonstrate a Reckless Disregard for Human Life

In L.E. Myers Co. v. Young, a business contracted with a Florida utility company to install several new power poles in Manatee County, Florida. As part of the contract, the business was tasked with installing four 85-foot-long concrete poles that weighed about 21,000 pounds each along a Bradenton street in compliance with the utility company’s specifications. In addition, the company was required to provide traffic control while working along the street.

Each pole was installed using a crane that was provided and operated by a third party. While one of the poles was being installed, one of the tractor-trailers used to transport the poles was parked in the emergency lane of the roadway. Although the pole was completely off the street, a truck tire was hanging over the white line that was painted on the road. Because of this, a safety supervisor who was employed by the contractor placed traffic cones and warning signs on the street near the work site.

While the pole was being unloaded from the truck, a driver stopped about 75 feet away in order to turn left into a business. Unfortunately, another motorist who was traveling around 50 miles above the posted speed limit rear-ended the driver. The force of the impact caused the driver’s vehicle to strike the concrete pole. Sadly, the driver passed away two years later as a result of the horrific injuries he sustained in the collision.

Following the driver’s death, his estate sued the motorist who struck him as well as the contractor, utility company, and subcontractors for negligence. The contractor asserted numerous affirmative defenses, including a variety of set-offs related to the negligence of third parties the company did not have control over. After that, the estate filed a motion for partial summary judgment with the trial court. In its motion, the estate argued the contractor was not entitled to set-offs because the business was engaged in an inherently dangerous activity.

Although the trial court stated material facts were in dispute, it held that the contractor was engaged in an inherently dangerous activity and granted the estate’s motion for partial summary judgment. Next, the trial court granted the estate’s motion to amend its complaint to include punitive damages. In general, such damages are intended to punish and deter particularly egregious conduct.

During a jury trial, the estate offered eyewitness testimony stating that there were no traffic cones or warning signs present on the roadway when the tragic accident took place. It also presented evidence that the contractor failed to implement a traffic plan in compliance with the requirements of Florida Department of Transportation Index 603 or close the right lane adjacent to the work site. In response, the company’s safety supervisor refuted the estate’s evidence through his testimony and photos of the accident scene. After stating the company was not required to comply with Index 603 due to the circumstances at the job site, the safety supervisor admitted that his traffic plan would not have complied with the regulation.

At the close of evidence, the contractor asked the court to issue a directed verdict related to the issue of punitive damages.  According to the company, the estate did not offer sufficient evidence to merit this extraordinary award. After the trial court denied the contractor’s motion, the jury issued a verdict of $1.2 million in compensatory and $9.8 million in punitive damages in favor of the estate. The trial court then reduced the compensatory damages award by the amount of fault attributed to the negligent motorist who struck the decedent’s car from behind. The court also lowered the punitive damages award to $3.6 million pursuant to Section 768.73(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes. The company next filed an appeal with Florida’s Second District.

On appeal, the contractor argued that the trial court committed error when it ruled that the business was engaged in an inherently dangerous activity. After holding that the evidence could not support a conclusion that the activity was inherently dangerous as a matter of law, the appellate court stated the issue was a question for the jury. As a result, the Second District reversed the lower court’s order granting summary judgment on the issue and remanded the case.

Next, the Court of Appeal addressed the issue of punitive damages. According to the Second District, the trial court committed error when it refused to enter a directed verdict in favor of the contractor on the issue of punitive damages at the close of evidence. The court stated the evidence as a whole did not support the estate’s claim that the contractor demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life. Because of this, the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the jury’s punitive damages award.

Finally, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal held that the contractor was entitled to a new trial.

If you were injured or lost a treasured loved one in a South Florida car accident, you need a seasoned personal injury lawyer on your side to help you protect your rights. To discuss your case with a caring Miami personal injury attorney today, give the experienced advocates at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. a call at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

L.E. Myers Co. v. Young, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 2nd Dist. 2015

More Blog Posts:

Not All Evidence is Admissible in a South Florida Car Accident Case, March 5, 2015, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog

Florida Supreme Court Says Auto Insurer Issued New Policy When it Changed the Sole Named Insured in UM Benefits Dispute, March 2, 2015, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog

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