In 2004, an intoxicated employee for the Defendant cruise line knocked on multiple passenger doors, apparently attempting to find a place to sleep. The Plaintiff, Jane Doe, was one of the accosted passengers, and she filed a lawsuit asserting negligence, assualt, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. One month before trial, Plaintiff requested leave to amend her complaint to include punitive damages. Without making a determination as to whether a reasonable evidentiary basis existed for the punitive damages claim, the trial court allowed the amendment. The Defendant appealed the decision and the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District, reversed.
In Florida, a state statute provides that “[i]n any civil action, no claim for punitive damages shall be permitted unless there is a reasonable showing by evidence in the record or proffered by the claimant which would provide a reasonable basis of such damages.” Fla. Stat. § 768.72 (2010). Florida’s Supreme Court concluded that this statute creates “a substantive legal right not to be subjected to punitive damages” without first having a determination as to a plaintiff’s evidentiary basis for the damages. Globe Newspaper Co. v. King, 658 So.2d 518, 519 (Fla. 1995). Allowing punitive damages without this prerequisite showing would render Section 768.72 meaningless. Id. at 519-20.
The Third District determined that, “[b]ecause the trial court failed to make a determination that there exists a reasonable evidentiary basis for the recovery of punitive damages as required…it departed from the essential requirements of the law and violated [Defendant’s] substantive legal right not to be subjected to a punitive damages claim…” Of particular note in the court’s opinion are the statements made about punitive damages in general maritime law. For instance, the court noted that there was an unresolved split of authority as to “whether punitive damages are available at all in maritime passenger actions,” that the Third District previously expressed grave misgivings about passenger punitive damages claims, and that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit previously precluded punitive damages for “personal injury actions brought under general maritime law except in cases involving intentional wrongdoing.” The tenor of the court’s statements suggests that these maritime-based punitive damages claims are not favored by the Third District.
(Note: I originally published this post on Navigable Waters: A Maritime, Longshore and Defense Base Act Blog.)