A Florida appellate court recently rendered a key opinion reversing a lower court ruling that any modification to a judgment in a tort case that occurs during an appeal must include interest calculated from the date of the verdict instead of the original judgment date.
The appellate court opinion evolved out of a 2011 case in which the jury entered a verdict of over $7 million for the plaintiffs, who were surviving heirs bringing a wrongful death action for the loss of their loved one. The jury determined that the appellant was 40 percent at fault for the decedent's death. Next, the defendant and the other defendants sued in the action brought a motion to limit the non-economic damages available to the plaintiffs, pursuant to Florida Statutes 766.118(2). According to the plaintiffs, this provision required the non-economic damages to be capped at half a million dollars.
In response to this argument, the plaintiffs contended that this provision of the Florida statutory code was in direct contravention of the state and federal constitutions. After multiple hearings on the issue, the lower court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to $1.3 million in damages. The court reached this figure by assessing the amount of the defendant's fault and applying the non-economic damages limitation in the statute.
Both parties appealed the judgment, and the appellate court upheld the lower court's ruling without providing an explanatory opinion. Roughly four months later, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that the statute was unconstitutional based on the Florida Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. According to the high court, the statute's limitation on non-economic damages in wrongful death actions placed an unfair and illogical burden on the parties when multiple defendants are involved.
Shortly after the Florida Supreme Court ruling, the appellate court withdrew its upholding of the lower court's damages award and remanded the case with instructions to enter a judgment that did not include a reduction under the statute. The parties disagreed about when interest on the amended judgment should run, and the trial court concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to interest running from the date of the original jury verdict. The defendants appealed, arguing that the plaintiff was not entitled to post-trial interest during the time between the original jury verdict and the entry of the amended judgment.
The appeals court first stated that Florida typically requires money judgment interest to accrue on the date a judgment is issued that fixes the amount of the award. However, if the lower court concludes the proceeding without providing a damages award, and the appellate court later orders the lower court to enter a money judgment on remand, post-trial interest must run from the date of the verdict. This rule can be found in Florida appellate rule 9.340(c).
If, however, the lower court initially provided a money judgment, and the appeal proceeding only results in the modification of the award amount, this rule does not apply. In this instance, the interest ought to accrue from the date the judgment was originally entered. Accordingly, the appellate court entered an order awarding the plaintiff post-trial interest running from the original judgment date in lieu of the verdict date.
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