Florida Supreme Court Amends Rules for Appellate Review of Punitive Damages Claims

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The Florida Supreme Court approved earlier this year an amendment to the state’s rule of appellate procedure, a change that opponents say could block punitive damages in liability lawsuits.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices adopted a rule change that permits a party to seek immediate appellate review of an order granting or denying a motion to assert a claim for punitive damages. Previously, litigants had to wait until the trial’s conclusion before appealing any declared punitive damages. The new rule went into effect April 1.

Opponents of the new rule argue that the ability to appeal punitive damages claims during a lower court trial will delay the lawsuit by months, increasing litigation costs and discouraging many plaintiffs from seeking punitive damages in favor of a quicker outcome.

The rule change followed a 2020 request by the Florida Supreme Court for the state’s Appellate Court Rules Committee to propose rule amendments providing for the interlocutory appeal of nonfinal orders regarding the assertion of a claim for punitive damages. The Rules Committee and the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar approved the proposed amendment. After reviewing the proposal, considering comments and responses filed, and after hearing oral arguments, the Supreme Court adopted the proposed amendment.

“The unfortunate consequence of this drastic change in appellate procedure will be unnecessary and unwarranted delays in civil actions with claims for punitive damages,” wrote Justice Jorge Labarga in a dissent to the ruling. “Undoubtedly, once the interlocutory vehicle of appellate review is available, it is not unreasonable to expect that the losing party will choose to pursue an immediate appeal of the trial court’s order in most, if not all, cases, adding to the caseload of appellate courts. Once the trial court’s ruling is appealed, the case will necessarily stall at the trial level until the district court renders a ruling on whether the claim for punitive damages was properly permitted.

“Given this additional delay, it is also not unreasonable to anticipate that some claimants in civil cases may reluctantly forgo meritorious claims for punitive damages in order to avoid delay in bringing their cases to a final resolution. Of particular concern are tort cases involving personal injury, where claims for much needed medical and economic relief will stall until the question of punitive damages is resolved. Access to our judicial system with claims authorized by law should not be impeded by unnecessary delay and resulting additional expense.”

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