A Florida appeals court recently reversed a $1 million car accident lawsuit verdict after applying the newest standard for harmless error in civil cases.

carcrash2-300x200Throughout this car accident lawsuit, Hurtado v. DeSouza ,were numerous references to the fact that the plaintiff suffered mental anguish as a result of defendant wanting to leave the scene, not apologizing for the rear-end crash and refusing to admit liability until the eve of trial.

Florida law doesn’t allow damages for mental anguish on these grounds. Per the impact rule, mental anguish or emotional distress must be derived from a specific physical injury.

Trial court sustained numerous objects from defense when plaintiff attorney repeatedly referenced the mental and emotional impact of defendant’s alleged lack of accountability. However, the court did not grant a mistrial, as requested, but offered a curative instruction, as penned by the defense.

Jurors awarded $1 million in damages to plaintiff for his injuries.

On appeal to the 4th DCA, defendant argued trial court erred in admitting certain prejudicial evidence pertaining to the claim of mental anguish, and also plaintiff’s financial hardships. Previously, the 4th DCA ruled that while admission of such evidence did constitute an error, the error was harmless.

However, the standard for harmless error in civil cases was altered with the 2014 Florida Supreme Court case of Special v. West Boca Medical Center. The new standard holds that when there is an error in a civil case, the prevailing party must show that error did not contribute to the verdict.

Defense filed a motion for rehearing on the matter, which the 4th DCA granted. Applying this new standard of harm in civil case error, the court could not say the error did not contribute to the verdict, and thus reversed and remanded for a new trial.

According to court records, this case started with a rear end crash in Palm Beach County. Plaintiff was an airline pilot who was driving with his wife and children. He was stopped at a red light with his head turned toward his wife when he was the victim of a rear-end crash, with defendant driving the other vehicle.

Although the property damage was fairly insignificant, plaintiff alleged he almost immediately felt pain in his neck and back that radiated to other parts of his body. According to plaintiff’s account, defendant did not check on him after the crash, failed to apologized and delayed admitting liability. All of this, his attorney claimed, caused him mental anguish.

However at trial, it was noted repeatedly that Florida law doesn’t support a claim for mental anguish on this theory. Although the court sustained defense objection, the trial continued, though jury was given a curative instruction.

Jurors were also told the plaintiff was unable to fly for two years as a result of the accident, that he lost his home in a foreclosure and was unable to obtain medical treatment because he had no health insurance.

Defense counsel moved for a mistrial, but it was not granted.

There was also a great deal of contention as to causation. While defendant admitted liability for the crash, he argued plaintiff’s ailments were pre-existing.

Jurors decided the case in favor of plaintiff.

Defendant argued on appeal that admission of plaintiff’s mental anguish damages and financial hardship issues (Florida has a long-standing rule that the wealth or financial status of one party or another should not be referenced where irrelevant) was both prejudicial and irrelevant and resulted in a verdict that wasn’t warranted. Specifically, he argued trial court erred by allowing testimony that he never checked on plaintiff or said he was sorry, failed to admit fault until just prior to trial or that he attempted to leave the scene.

Appeals court initially agreed the court erred, but found the error harmless. Now, however, the court reverses itself and remands for a new trial.

The court found plaintiff had not shown there was no reasonable possibility the error contributed to the verdict.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Hurtado v. DeSouza , April 15, 2015, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal

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Report: Ignition Interlock Could Slash DUI Fatalities by 80 Percent, April 10, 2015, Fort Myers Accident Lawyer Blog