Punitive Damages in DUI Injury Cases

In a tort case (GISELLE GATTORNO and DAVID IGLESIAS, Appellants, v. STEVEN SOUTO, Appellee. 3rd District. Case No. 3D23-0639. L.T. Case No. 21-22353. March 27, 2024) involving a pedestrian struck by a vehicle, the plaintiff sustained permanent and severe injuries when he was pinned between two vehicles after the defendant reversed out of a parking space. The plaintiff sought punitive damages, alleging that the driver was intoxicated when she struck him with a car owned by a codefendant. The trial court permitted the plaintiff to amend the complaint to include the claim for punitive damages. Upon review, it was determined that the trial court appropriately considered and weighed the evidence presented by both parties, acting as a factfinder and fulfilling its role as a gatekeeper. Consequently, the trial court’s decision to grant the plaintiff’s motion for punitive damages was deemed appropriate, as the plaintiff provided a reasonable evidentiary basis for such recovery.

In Florida, punitive damages serve not to compensate the plaintiff further but to penalize the defendant for wrongful behavior and to discourage similar actions by them and others in the future (Manheimer v. Fla. Power & Light Co., 48 Fla. L. Weekly D1495, 2023 WL 4919540, at *2 (Fla. 3d DCA Aug. 2, 2023), quoting Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Ballard, 749 So. 2d 483, 486 (Fla. 1999)). Section 768.72(1) outlines that in any civil action, punitive damages can only be pursued if there is sufficient evidence in the record or presented by the claimant to justify such damages. Essentially, the statute requires the trial court to act as a gatekeeper, preventing claims for punitive damages where there is no reasonable basis for recovery (KIS Grp., LLC v. Moquin, 263 So. 3d 63, 65 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019)). This role is crucial because punitive damages significantly impact litigation, exposing the defendant to financial scrutiny and potential uninsured losses (Manheimer, 48 Fla. L. Weekly D1495 at *2). In determining whether punitive damages are warranted, the trial court must carefully evaluate the evidence presented by both parties, weighing each party’s submissions and acting as a factfinder (Manheimer, 48 Fla. L. Weekly D1495 at *3). However, the statute does not demand that plaintiffs prove entitlement to punitive damages by clear and convincing evidence at the pleading stage, as imposing such a requirement would undermine the statute and hinder a claimant’s ability to seek punitive damages (Deaterly v. Jacobson, 313 So. 3d 798, 801 (Fla. 2d DCA 2021)).

Giselle Gattorno and David Iglesias, who were defendants in the lower court, are appealing a nonfinal order that granted Steven Souto’s motion to amend his complaint to include a claim for punitive damages. The appellants argue that the trial court made an error in allowing the amendment, stating that Souto failed to present sufficient evidence to justify the claim for punitive damages, as required by section 768.72(1) of the Florida Statutes (2021). The lawsuit stems from an incident in which Gattorno, driving Iglesias’ car, reversed out of a parking space, causing Souto severe injuries. Souto sued Gattorno and Iglesias for negligence, alleging that Gattorno operated the car negligently and that Iglesias, as the car owner, was vicariously liable.

Souto filed a motion to amend his complaint to include a claim for punitive damages, contending that Gattorno was intoxicated at the time of the incident. The motion was supported by deposition testimony from four witnesses, including Gattorno, Danielle Iglesias, Souto, and Christopher Noonan, who witnessed the incident. The witnesses provided varying accounts regarding Gattorno’s level of intoxication.

The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion, reviewed the evidence, and granted Souto’s motion to amend. The appellants appealed this decision, arguing that the evidence presented by Souto did not meet the statutory requirement for seeking punitive damages.

The appellate court, upon conducting a de novo review of the evidence, affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court emphasized that the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for wrongful conduct and deter similar behavior in the future. It stated that evidence of intoxication while driving can constitute grounds for punitive damages. The court found that the evidence presented by Souto provided a reasonable basis for seeking punitive damages, as it indicated that Gattorno was intoxicated at the time of the incident.

In conclusion, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Souto leave to amend his complaint to include a claim for punitive damages, as the evidence presented by Souto met the statutory requirement for seeking such damages.

Wolfson & Leon – Your Florida Personal Injury Law Firm

If you or your loved ones were injured by a drunk driver you should call the Florida punitive damage lawyers at Wolfson & Leon. Our personal injury lawyers can help you get the justice and compensation that you deserve. Wolfson & Leon are positioned to defend the rights of anyone injured in Florida with offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Cape Coral, Hialeah and Fort Myers. Our personal injury legal team is bilingual and available to you 24/7. Call today for your free and confidential consultation at (305) WOLFSON (965-3766) or (305) 285-1115.

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