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Florida Fourth DCA partially reverses judgment for plaintiff in defamation case, finds that trial court erred in accepting the plaintiff’s unliquidated damages claim without conducting an evidentiary hearing

On March 31, 2021, in Stamper v. Sahai, No. 4D19-3469, the Florida Fourth DCA partially reversed a judgment for the plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit filed by a surgeon against a former patient. After the defendant failed to respond to discovery and other court directives, the trial court entered a default against him. In seeking the entry of final judgment after default, the plaintiff presented a damages affidavit claiming he had experienced a “total” loss of $315,000, exclusive of attorney’s fees and costs. In its final judgment after default, the trial court relied upon the affidavit to find that the damages sought were reasonable and would fairly and adequately compensate plaintiff. The defendant argued on appeal that the damages sought by plaintiff were unliquidated and that the trial court consequently erred in relying upon an affidavit in lieu of holding a trial or evidentiary hearing on damages. The Fourth DCA agreed, citing Kotlyar v. Metro. Cas. Ins. Co., 192 So. 3d 562, 565 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), in support of the principle that while a default terminates the defending party’s right to further contest liability, it does not terminate the defendant’s right to contest the amount of any unliquidated damages, including the due process entitlement to notice and an opportunity to be heard as to the presentation and evaluation of evidence necessary to a judicial interpretation of the amount of unliquidated damages. The Fourth DCA reversed and remanded for a trial or evidentiary hearing on the unliquidated damages claimed by the plaintiff.