• In Punitive Damages Trial, Trial Court Abused Its Discretion When It Failed to Instruct Jury It Could Not Award an Amount of Punitive Damages that Would Financially Destroy Defendant.
  • July 14, 2017
  • Persaud v. Cortes, as personal representative of the Estate of Joshua Batista, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D1144 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017)

    Mr. Persaud rear-ended a vehicle that resulted in the death of the driver, Mr. Santiago, and the passenger, Mr. Batista. Mr. Persaud was convicted of two counts of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to two life sentences. During the compensatory phase of a bifurcated trial, a jury awarded $244,419 in damages to the estate of Mr. Batista and $75,144.24 in damages to the estate of Mr. Santiago. During the punitive damages phase, a dispute arose during the charging conference between counsel for plaintiffs and the defense regarding the reading of Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.) 503.1(c)(2). The dispute involved whether sufficient evidence of Persaud’s financial resources was entered at trial so as to entitle him to reading of the section of the instruction that the jury could not award punitive damages in an amount that would financially ruin the defendant. One factual issue was whether sufficient pre-trial notice of the defendant’s intent to invoke his lack of financial worth was disclosed to the plaintiff. The trial court ultimately ruled that the portion of the jury instruction as to the defendant’s financial destruction would not be read. The jury returned a total punitive damages award of $1.25 million. On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to instruct the jury that it could not award punitive damages in an amount that would bankrupt the defendant. The Fifth District Court of Appeals in reaching its decision considered Note 7 of Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.) 503.1(c)(2) and determined that Persaud satisfied both requirements for reading of this instruction: (1) that the defendant requested the instruction be read, despite not objecting later that it was not read; and (2) that the defense presented evidence of net worth during the trial. The case was remanded for a new trial as to punitive damages. In a matter involving potential punitive damages, the expediency in which the insurer and insured wish to resolve a claim may differ. As a general practice tip, an early discussion with the insured or the insured’s personal counsel regarding the insured’s financial resources may help in assuring the insured’s support of the defense, as well as providing defense counsel and the claims professional clarity in assessing the true settlement valuation of a claim.