In WG Evergreen Woods SH, et al. v. Fares, the Florida Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether Florida Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 1.190(f) required the trial court to hold a hearing before allowing the plaintiff leave to amend its complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. The plaintiff in the action was the estate of a man named Donald DeVore, who was a resident at the defendant's assisted living facility. At the facility, he received occupational and physical therapy to improve his strength. He was also permitted to use the pool and the hot tub. One day, a staff member found DeVore alone and unresponsive in the hot tub. It was later determined that he suffered a heart attack and consequently died.
The estate sued the defendant for negligence and wrongful death, seeking compensatory damages. In its complaint, the estate alleged that the decedent's medical conditions indicated that he should not be allowed to use the hot tub and that despite assurances from the defendant, the decedent often used the hot tub and pool without assistance or supervision. They alleged that the decedent's ultimate cause of death was drowning.
After the litigation progressed for one year, the plaintiff moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. Pursuant to FRCP 1.190(f), the plaintiffs included a copy of the proposed amended complaint. The amendment would add 18 new sections, including affidavits from the plaintiff's experts, an autopsy report, deposition transcripts, and more.
The defendant opposed the motion for leave to amend, stating that the proffer did not include evidence that would substantiate the plaintiff's request for punitive damages. The defendant made two separate requests for a hearing to further examine this issue, but the lower court denied the request and granted the motion to add the claim for punitive damages. It reasoned that the proffer of evidence supported the punitive damages claim, and the court was merely ruling on the plaintiff's right to plead a punitive damages claim, rather than whether the plaintiff was entitled to receive punitive damages.
On appeal, the reviewing court first outlined the statutory framework for seeking punitive damages against assisted living facilities, detailed in Florida Statutes Section 429.297. The court interpreted this section as contemplating a hearing as part of the overall procedure that must be followed when a party wants to add a punitive damages claim. The court described the lower court's failure to conduct a hearing as a violation of the defendant's due process right and remanded the case with instructions to the lower court to hold a hearing on whether the plaintiff had provided a sufficient proffer of evidence to support a claim for punitive damages.
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