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Florida Supreme Court rules that initial tortfeasor may not seek equitable subrogation from a subsequent tortfeasor when the initial judgment has not been fully satisfied

On July 13, 2017, in Holmes Regional Medical Center v. Allstate, No. SC15-1555, the Florida Supreme Court quashed a Florida Fifth DCA decision which allowed a party who had previously been found liable in a motor vehicle negligence case, and the insurance company that paid a portion of his judgment, to intervene and seek equitable subrogation in a medical negligence case in which the plaintiff alleged that his injuries from the motor vehicle accident had been exacerbated by medical negligence. An alleged tortfeasor is prohibited under Florida law from presenting evidence of subsequent medical negligence in his or her case or from filing a third party complaint in the case for alleged aggravation of the injuries. SeeStuart v. Hertz, 351 So. 2d 703 (Fla. 1977). However, the initial tortfeasor may bring an action for “equitable subrogation” against a successive tortfeasor, including a medical provider, after the initial tortfeasor has paid the original judgment. See Underwriters at Lloyds v. City of Lauderdale Lakes, 382 So. 2d 702 (Fla. 1980). The Florida Supreme Court previously expounded on what was required for an initial tortfeasor to assert an equitable subrogation claim in Dade County School Board v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638 (Fla. 1999), where the Court held that equitable subrogation is “generally appropriate” when five factors are satisfied: (1) the subrogee made the payment to protect his or her own interest, (2) the subrogee did not act as a volunteer, (3) the subrogee was not primarily liable for the debt, (4) the subrogee paid off the entire debt, and (5) subrogation would not work any injustice to the rights of a third party. In the instant case, the Fifth DCA had permitted the intervention notwithstanding the fact that the original tortfeasor’s insurance company had paid only a portion of the judgment against him, leaving most of the judgment unsatisfied. As the Florida Supreme Court pointed out, this violated its established rule that allof the original obligation must be paid before equitable subrogation is permitted. The Court also noted that a plaintiff is entitled to bring separate simultaneous actions against an initial tortfeasor and subsequent treatment providers or to bring successive actions, quoting from Am. Process Co. v. Florida White Pressed Brick Co., 47 So. 942, 944 (Fla. 1908) (“Where the law affords several distinct, but not inconsistent, remedies for the enforcement of a right, the mere election or choice to pursue one of such remedies does not operate as a waiver of the right to pursue the other remedies.”). The Court made clear that even if the damages are identical, there is no bar to proceed against a concurrent or subsequent tortfeasor where the prior judgment remained wholly or partly uncollected.

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