Carol Wilson slipped and fell in a hotel bathtub, breaking her back, because the hotel’s shower was not equipped with a slip-resistant bathmat, slip-resistant surface or a safety bar. Apparently, Sheraton had received a number of complaints about slippery bath tubs before Ms. Wilson was injured. Due to the hotel’s negligence, in allowing their tubs to remain slippery, eight other guests were seriously injured from slipping and falling in the five months before her fall. In fact, one of the other injured victims was knocked unconscious by the fall. Ultimately, the Sheraton admitted that for the five months before her fall, 200 hotel bathtubs were unsafe yet they continued to rent the rooms. The typical cost of a slip-resistant bath mat is only $7.00.
The jury’s verdict included $100,000.00 in punitive damages, specifically finding that the Sheraton acted willfully and wantonly and with reckless disregard to the safety of others. The jury also awarded $55,418.23 for lost wages and medical expenses, $50,000.00 for physical impairment, and $35,000.00 for pain and suffering.
In Florida, punitive damages are available in civil cases and are determined by Florida Statute Section 768.72. They are permitted only upon proving evidence that would provide a reasonable basis for recovery of such damages. Discovery should be permitted to obtain evidence of conduct warranting punitive damages. Courts, however, are not permitted to allow the discovery of financial worth until the pleading concerning punitive damages is allowed. For a defendant to be legally liable for punitive damages in Florida, either a jury or judge would have to find that the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence by clear and convincing evidence. “Intentional Misconduct” means that the defendant had actual knowledge the conduct was wrongful and a high probability that injury to the claimant would result and, despite knowing this, intentionally pursued the course of conduct, resulting in injury. In Florida, “Gross Negligence” means that the defendant’s conduct is so reckless that it constitutes a conscious disregard to the safety or life of another. Florida supermarkets can be liable for the conduct of its employees when their employ’s conduct meets certain criteria.
Our Miami lawyers were recently successful in obtaining a punitive damage claim against a Florida plastic surgeon and a general surgeon. Currently, we have pending a motion to amend a complaint to include punitive damages against a Florida anesthesiologist who performed a procedure on the wrong limb. Since this was a medical procedure that was not consented to, we view the actions of this doctor as intentional misconduct. In cases that involve intentional torts (like battery or wrong site surgeries), leave to add a claim against the tortfeasor or defendant should be liberally granted. Florida courts have consistently held that proof of malice necessary for a cause of action for an intentional tort is also sufficient evidence of malice on the part of the Defendant, to permit the jury to award punitive damages. See e.g. Ciamar Marcy, Inc. v. Monteiro Da Costa, 508 So. 2d 1282 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1987).