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Florida First DCA rules the $80,000 verdict by jury for “nominal damages” was excessive in case involving no admissible evidence on compensatory damages

On October 24, 2019, in The Prestige Gallery, Inc. v. Napleton, No. 1S18-2318, the Florida First DCA reversed a final judgment and jury verdict in a slander case which awarded the plaintiff $80,000 in “nominal damages.” After the plaintiff had failed to present admissible evidence on compensatory damages at trial, the trial court had provided a verdict form that allowed the jury to award nominal damages, punitive damages, or both. After the jury asked if there was a limit on nominal damages, the trial court simply read back the jury instruction which stated that “[i]f you find for a plaintiff on his/her slander claim, but find that no injury or damage has been proved, you may award nominal damages. Nominal damages are damages of an inconsequential amount which are awarded to vindicate a right where a wrong is established but no damages proved.” The jury then requested a definition for the term “inconsequential” and the court instructed the jury: “‘inconsequential’ means, and I’ve come up with this, which is inconsequential means ‘of little or no importance or insignificant.’” The First DCA concluded that there was no legal basis for the jury’s subsequent $80,000 nominal damages award, citing State Dep’t of Corr. v. Niosi, 583 So. 2d 441 (Fla. 4th DCA 1991), a case in which the Fourth DCA reversed a $750 nominal damages award to $1. The First DCA also noted that there are some older cases where courts in other states have found nominal damages in excess of $75 or $100 are legally impermissible. Baden v. Sunset Fuel Co., 225 Or. 116, 119 (1960); Gould v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 6 Utah 2d 187 (1957) ($75); Lucas v. Morrison, 286 S.W.2d 190 (1956) ($100); Moyer v. Cordell, 204 Okl. 255 (1951) ($105); People v. Giacobbi, 83 Cal.App. 12 (1927) ($100); Broads v. Mead, 159 Cal. 765 (1911) ($100).