TRIAL COURT DID NOT DEPART FROM ESSENTIAL REQUIREMENTS OF LAW BY ALLOWING PLAINTIFF TO AMEND HIS COMPLAINT TO ADD A CLAIM FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES, NOTWITHSTANDING THAT THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO MAKE ANY EXPRESS FINDINGS THAT THE PLAINTIFF MET HIS EVIDENTIARY BURDEN.
Watt v. Lo, 45 Fla. L Weekly D1997 (Fla. 1st DCA August 19, 2020):
The defendant was impaired by alcohol and marijuana use when he drove his car into the plaintiff and seven other pedestrians. Plaintiff sued defendant for negligence, and then later moved for punitive damages.
The amendment for punitive damages came after the defendant had pled guilty in the related criminal case to multiple counts of DUI.
During the hearing, the parties discussed the trial court’s gatekeeping role in determining whether a punitive damages claim can proceed. The court ruled that the amendment was proper, but made no affirmative or express finding that plaintiff made the required evidentiary showing under §768.72(1).
The question presented by the petition was whether such a finding is required. The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Districts have all ruled that such a showing is necessary, and that a trial court must make an “affirmative finding” of a reasonable evidentiary basis for the punitive damages claim before one may proceed.
The First District disagreed. Reading the plain language of §768.72(1), it held that nothing within the statute requires a trial court to make such an express or affirmative finding, and all that is required is a showing based on the evidence in the record as proffered by the claimant.
Here, the trial court followed its oral ruling with a written order granting the motion after noting that it had reviewed the court file, the filings of the parties and had heard argument of counsel.
Thus, even without an express or affirmative finding that the plaintiff met his evidentiary burden under §768.72(1), the trial court’s decision complied with the procedural requirements of the statute.