A trial court overseeing a traffic accident lawsuit erred when it allowed the jury to hear evidence of plaintiff’s purported mental anguish when at-fault driver allegedly attempted to flee the scene, as well as information about his financial hardships.
Jurors awarded plaintiff $1 million in damages, and although Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal initially affirmed judgment, finding the errors were harmless, it reversed upon rehearing on the basis of a new “harmless error” test as handed down by the Florida Supreme Court in Special v. West Boca Center.
In the case before the 4th DCA, Hurtado v. Desouza, the trial court allowed testimony to enter the record pertaining to a mental anguish claim not supported by Florida law and also regarding plaintiff’s financial struggles in the wake of the crash.
Claims for negligent infliction of mental anguish or emotional distress can only be presented when they stem from specific physical injury in Florida. This is known as the “impact rule. “Meanwhile, the principle that forbids courts from considering the financial circumstances of any individual where it is not relevant is rooted in long-standing common law. Courts have strictly adhered to this rule not to make reference to one’s wealth or poverty because it’s been noted jurors may have a tendency to favor those who are less wealthy.
In this case, plaintiff was a commercial airline pilot who was stopped in traffic at a red light with his wife and child in the vehicle. His head was turned to them as he spoke when he was rear-ended by another vehicle. Plaintiff instantly felt pain in his neck, tingling and numbness in his fingers and pain in his arm and shoulder.
Plaintiff would later testify at trial that defendant never apologized or asked him if he was Ok, and in fact, expressed a desire to leave the scene. Plaintiff informed defendant he could be arrested if he left, so defendant stayed.
Shortly before trial, defendant conceded liability for the accident, though he contested plaintiff’s assertion that his injuries, which included a herniated disc, were caused by the collision. Defendant argued these conditions were pre-existing.
Plaintiff’s attorney, over repeated objections from the defense team, made reference to plaintiff’s mental anguish over the fact defendant hadn’t apologized or conceded liability sooner. The judge did not grant a mistrial on these grounds, but he did give a curative instruction to jurors.
Plaintiff’s wife at trial testified her husband had been unable to work due to his injuries, and thus he was not able to maintain his flight training or health insurance. The family also lost their home to foreclosure, she told jurors.
Jurors decided in favor of the injured traffic accident victim, awarding him more than $1 million in damages. Appeals court initially affirmed, but reversed on rehearing.
The court previously ruled that while the lower court had erred in allowing this testimony, the error had been harmless. However, when the Florida Supreme Court issued its ruling in Special, it clarified the rule for what constitutes a “harmless error” in civil cases. That ruling held the beneficiary of the error has the burden of proof to show the error didn’t affect the verdict. The court ruled that threshold was not reached in this case, and thus the verdict was reversed and the case remanded for trial.
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Hurtado v. Desouza, April 15, 2015, Fla. 4th DCA
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