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Florida Fourth DCA rules that forgiveness of prior punitive damages award irrelevant to determination in subsequent action whether award sufficiently punished tortfeasor

On June 7, 2017, in Knauf Plasterboard Co. v. Ziegler, No. 4D17-844, the Florida Fourth DCA granted a defendant’s petition for a writ of certiorari seeking review of two orders permitting the discovery of the amount of punitive damages they actually paid in the post-judgment settlement of an unrelated case. The plaintiff had apparently sought the discovery because it was believed that as part of the post-judgment settlement of the unrelated case, the defendant was relieved of the obligation to pay the prior punitive damages award. Florida Statute Section 768.73(2) prohibits the award of punitive damages against a defendant if such damages have previously been awarded in another case for harm from the same act or single course of conduct, unless it is determined by clear and convincing evidence that the previous award was insufficient to punish the defendant’s behavior. The Fourth DCA noted that there is no mention in the statute of the defendant’s actual payment of the previous punitive damages award as having any relevance to the determination and on this basis quashed the trial court’s discovery orders.

This is a questionable decision. The issue of whether a prior award had actually been paid is arguably relevant to a judicial determination of whether, in the statute’s language, “the amount of prior punitive damages awarded was insufficient to punish the defendant’s behavior,” particularly where the payment of the prior award was forgiven as part of a post-judicial settlement. The problem no doubt perceived by the Florida Fourth DCA is that such an interpretation would open up otherwise confidential settlement agreements to scrutiny and make the punitive damages determination potentially much more complicated, all without any explicit indication in the statute that this was intended.

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