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Florida Second DCA rules that trial court improperly severed the trial of plaintiff's UM case from trial of plaintiff's claims against defendant driver for negligence and punitive damages

On August 16, 2017, in Choi v. Auto-Owners Insurance Co., No. 2D16-4642, the Florida Second DCA granted a certiorari petition from the plaintiff in a motor vehicle negligence case and ruled that the trial court had improperly severed the trial of the plaintiff’s UM case from the trial of plaintiff’s claims against defendant driver for negligence and punitive damages. The defendant UM insurer argued that it was entitled to severance under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.270(b), to avoid prejudice from the jury’s discovering that the plaintiff had UM coverage and that the defendant driver allegedly was intoxicated at the time of the accident. The Second DCA acknowledged that Rule 1.270(b) generally gives courts the discretion to sever claims “in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice,” but declared it well-settled “that it is a departure from the essential requirements of the law to sever claims that are inextricably interwoven based on the risk of inconsistent verdicts,” citing Rocket Grp., LLC v. Jatib, 174 So. 3d 576, 576 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015); Minty v. Meister Financialgroup, Inc., 97 So. 3d 926, 931 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012); Kavouras v. Mario City Rest. Corp., 88 So. 3d 213, 214 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011); Bethany Evangelical Covenant Church of Miami, Fla., Inc. v. Calandra, 994 So. 2d 478, 479 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008); Maris Distrib. Co. v. AnheuserBusch, Inc., 710 So. 2d 1022, 1024 (Fla. 1st DCA 1998).

The Court additionally noted that the requested severance would not prevent the jury from learning that the plaintiff had UM insurance or that the defendant driver allegedly was intoxicated because the UM insurer indicated that it intended to contest liability. See Frazee v. Gillespie, 124 So. 6, 9-10 (Fla. 1929) (holding that the intoxication of a driver may be a basis for liability for injuries sustained as a result of an accident if the accident was caused by a negligent or wrongful act that resulted from being intoxicated).

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