Articles Posted in Litigation

Facebook.PNGInsurance companies and their defense attorneys seek any shred of evidence to discredit plaintiffs. Facebook and other social medial have become a fertile field for this type of evidence.

Personal injury cases include claims for economic and noneconomic damages. Facebook photographs and comments can contradict these claims. Photographs from the Aspen snow trip and comments about dancing the night away on South Beach can be inconsistent with claims of intractable pain and work limitations.
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surgeon-3-391477-m.jpgHerniated intervertebral discs can have significant medical and legal consequences. The symptoms of a herniated disc can range from minor pain all the way up to unbearable, unremitting pain, paresthesia, and numbness. Treatment options include palliative medicine, physical therapy, epidural injections, and surgery. Each of these option can be costly and none is guaranteed effective. A herniated disc can also limit one’s ability to work.

Discs herniate through degeneration, a lengthy process, and acute trauma. A disc compromised by degeneration is more likely to herniate from trauma than one that is not. The personal injury and workers’ compensation legal systems do not compensate for herniations caused by degeneration only. They are supposed to compensate for herniations caused solely by trauma, and will sometimes compensate for herniations superimposed on degeneration, referred to as an aggravation of a preexisting condition. (For an understanding of how the two systems handle aggravation injuries, consider Florida Standard Jury Instruction 501.5a, for civil cases, and this article, for workers’ compensation.

In civil cases, a defendant responsible for causing a herniated disc can be liable in damages which include medical expenses, lost wages (past and future), and pain & suffering (also known as non-economic damages). In workers’ compensation, the employer/carrier can be liable for medical expenses and lost wages; compensation for pain & suffering is not available in the workers’ compensation system.

The costs associated with a herniated disc can be significant, even in the hundreds of thousands where a spinal fusion is involved. As a result, civil defendants and workers’ compensation employers/carriers fight to limit their financial exposure.

A common defense method is to use doctors who will testify to one or more of the following:

  • There isn’t a herniation
  • If there is a herniation, it was not caused by the accident (e.g., it preexisted the accident)
  • The herniation is asymptomatic or not causing the level of pain being complained of by the Plaintiff/Claimant
  • The various treatment options, including surgery, are not indicated now or in the future
  • The herniation should not prevent the Plaintiff/Claimant from working full duty

The defense doctor’s testimony must be challenged. As with the questioning of any expert under oath, the most important rule is to be prepared. For me, at least, that means going over the doctor’s report with a fine tooth comb for weaknesses and inconsistencies, keeping in mind that what isn’t said is often as telling as what is said. At the beginning, I may feel stumped. However, with enough thought, even of the subconscious type, something always comes to mind. This is why I like to begin the process well in advance of the interrogation. Digesting and mulling works wonders.
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laptop-work-1260785-m.jpgParties to legal actions should always assume that their social media (e.g., Facebook; Twitter) postings will be discovered (discovery is allowed by FRCP 1.350; Discovery of Facebook Content in Florida Cases, 31 No. 2 Trial Advoc. Q 14 (Spring 2012)) and used against them by the other side if helpful. Postings can be used to contradict assertions made in a legal case and sometimes lead to the outright dismissal of actions by the court based on fraud.

However, hurdles must be overcome to get postings into evidence. Among the hurdles:

Finding and Preserving the Social Media Evidence

  • Once we find useful postings by surfing the Internet, we save link addresses, print pages, and take iPad screen shots by simultaneously pressing both of the device’s power switches.
  • Preservation of evidence letters can also be sent to those who own and or control the site to prevent spoilation of the evidence through the innocent or purposeful removal of content. Surprisingly, parties are not obligated to preserve evidence without a specific request. See, Osmulski v. Oldsmar Fine Wine, Inc., So.3d , 37 FLW D1578 (Fla. 2nd DCA 6-20-2012).
  • Formal discovery, pursuant to FRCP 1.310, 1.340, and 1.350, can be used to identify websites with potentially valuable information. Request from the respondent: websites the respondent uses to communicate with others; website account information such as account holder and user name; respondent’s email addresses, phone number, home address; printouts of account information and screen shots.
  • Subpoenas can also be issued to website administrators, like Facebook and Twitter. (The particular knotty issues involved in gathering information from administrators is beyond the scope of this blog.)
  • Another source of information is the Wayback Machine. This is a service that allows people to surf more than 150 billion pages in the Internet Archive’s Web archive.

Legal Hurdles
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doctor.jpgAccident victims often require medical attention. Medical malpractice sometimes makes their medical conditions worse, compounding the initial injuries with additional medical expenses and pain and suffering.

When the initial injuries are caused by the negligence of a third party, the victim is entitled to be compensated by the third party for both the initial injuries and the enhanced injuries resulting from the medical negligence.

In Dungan v. Ford, 632 So. 2d 159 (Fla 1st DCA 1994), the trial court allowed the Defendant to present expert testimony that a surgeon should not have performed a percutaneous diskectomy which resulted in more pain, suffering and expenses. The trial judge’s ruling was appealed. The appellate court held that the trial judge was wrong:

“It is well-established that a wrongdoer is liable for the ultimate negligence on the part of a physician who has treated an injury in such a way that the treatment may have increased the damage which otherwise would have followed from the original wrong. Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703 (Fla. 1977); Davidson v. Gaillard, supra; Rucks v. Pushman, 541 So.2d 673 (Fla. 5th DCA), rev. denied, 549 So.2d 1014 (Fla. 1989); 57 Am.Jur.2d Negligence § 149, and Restatement (Second) of Torts § 457 (1965). Cf. Barrios v. Darrach, 629 So.2d 211 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993).”

surgery.jpgOne of the primary responsibilities of personal injury attorneys who represent Plaintiffs, those injured by the negligence of others, is to recover past and future medical expenses.

Recovering the past medical expenses requires proof that the charges are reasonable, related to the accident, and necessary. See Garrett v. Morris Kirschman & Co., Inc., 336 So.2d 566 (Fla. 1976).

Interestingly, while expert medical testimony is required to prove the relationship between the accident and the injuries, expert testimony is not always required to prove that the charges are reasonable and necessary. See, Id., and Albertson’s, Inc. v. Brady, 475 So.2d 986 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985), rev. denied, 486 So.2d 595 (Fla. 1986).

dollars.jpgIndividuals seriously injured through the negligence of others often require medical care and treatment long after the case is resolved. Settlements and jury verdicts must take these future medical expenses into account.

Some individuals harmed through the negligence of others are eligible for medical care through governmental or charitable services for a pre-existing disability unrelated to the tort claim. The most common of these services is Medicare.

Governmental and charitable reimbursements are always a fraction of a medical provider’s usual and customary charges. While the services may cover medical expenses related to the accident, there are no guarantees as to what will be covered and for how long. Given these factors, should juries be allowed to consider evidence of the reduced rates in calculating future medical expenses.

The answer in Florida appears to be Yes.

In State Farm v. Joerg, the trial court did not allow State Farm to introduce evidence that Joerg’s future medical expenses might be reduced under the Medicare program. The trial court’s decision was reversed on appeal.

Relying on Florida Physician’s Insurance Reciprocal v. Stanley, 452 So. 2d 514 (1984), a Florida Supreme Court case, Florida’s 2nd DCA held that since Joerg did not earn the Medicare benefit, the jury should be allowed to consider Medicare’s rates in calculating future medical expenses.
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scales.jpgFor-profit insurance companies enjoy privileges in Florida not afforded individuals and other commercial activities. It is little wonder they profit so handsomely. In turn, their wealth allows them to exercise ever greater control over politicians, the courts, and the psyche of the people. It’s an ugly picture.

In the context of liability claims, an insurance company’s primary responsibility is to protect its insured from an excess judgment. An excess judgment is a judgment entered by the court in an amount greater than the insured’s policy coverage limits. The carrier can achieve this outcome in most cases simply by being conscientious and reasonable. Falling below this standard is generally considered negligence.

As a lawyer, I can be held accountable for negligence causing harm to a client. The same holds true for doctors, bankers, manufacturers, drivers and every other entity … except for insurance companies.

In DeLaune v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 314 So.2d 601 (Fla. 4th DCA 1975), Liberty failed to settle a car crash claim for its insured’s policy limit of $10,000. A verdict was rendered against the insured for $360,000. The court disallowed the Plaintiff’s attempt to recover the difference in a separate lawsuit based on allegations of harm resulting from negligence. The court said that an insurance company cannot, unlike every other entity in Florida, be held liable for harming an insured based solely on negligence. (The insured assigned the Plaintiff his right to sue Liberty in exchange for the Plaintiff agreeing not to enforce the judgment against him. This is standard operating procedure in situations where insurance carriers expose their insureds to excess judgments.) See also Thomas v. Lumbermens Mutual, 424 So. 2d 36, 38 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1982).

Not good.

Silent (Dominant) Partner
When its insured is sued, the insurance company calls the shots on every aspect of defending the case. The carrier chooses the lawyers, hires the experts (or not), requires the insured’s cooperation, and decides on settlement (or not). Florida juries are not allowed to know any of this. See Sec. 627.4136, Fla. Stat.; Beta Eta House Corp. v. Gregory, 237 So. 2d 163, 165 (Fla. 1970) (The Florida Supreme Court said this information is not relevant to issues of fault and damages.)

Not good.
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cemetery1.jpgAny cause of action, or lawsuit, arising in Florida from the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or negligence of any person or entity is controlled by the “Florida Wrongful Death Act” (Sections 768.16-768.26). This blog describes some key wrongful death claim considerations.

  • Statute of Limitations: Florida Statute Section 95.11(4)(d) instructs that an action for wrongful death must commence within two years of death. Section 95.11(4)(b) describes when the SOL can be extended beyond 2 years where the WD resulted from medical negligence. (Read this blog: The Statute of Limitations (SOL) Under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act.)
  • Court of Competent Jurisdiction: Typically, WD claims are brought in state circuit courts. Regarding venue, Florida Statue, 47.011 provides that “Actions shall be brought only in the county where the defendant resides, where the cause of action accrued…. This section shall not apply to actions against nonresidents.” If none of the defendants reside in or have a principal place of business in Florida, the action must be brought in federal court.
  • Parties to the Lawsuit (Plaintiff): Florida WD actions are prosecuted by court appointed personal representative(s) on behalf of the decedent’s statutorily defined “survivors.” Link to this blog (for an outline of the “survivors” list.) The court appointed PR is often a survivor, like an adult child or a parent. The court may also appoint a guardian ad-litem for minors and incompetent adults.
  • Parties to the Lawsuit (Defendant): Defendants in WD actions are the individuals and entities who are alleged to be at-fault.
  • Damages: Making defendants pay monetary compensation to the survivors for their loss is how defendants are punished under our civil justice system. The amount of compensation, or damages, is determined by examining such elements as mental pain & suffering, loss of the decedent’s companionship and protection, past and future loss of support and services, and medical and funeral expenses. (Read this blog to see an outline of the damages available under the Act.)
  • Pretrial Procedure: Florida Wrongful Death Act claims can be settled by the parties at any time, even pre-suit. Some are settled after the lawsuit has been filed, but before or during trial. Some are dismiised by the court. The remainder go to final verdict.
  • Trial: Wrongful death cases are typically tried to juries, although judges can be chosen to act as the finder of fact. Judges make legal rulings, juries make factual determinations.
  • Post-trial: All rulings by judges and juries can be challenged on appeal. The threat of appeal sometimes precipitates settlement.

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While personal injury litigation in Florida courts is not supposed to be a game of “gotcha,” or trial by ambush, Surf Drugs, Inc. v. Vermette, 236 So.108, 111 Fla.1970,” unless attorneys pay careful attention, it can happen in their cases. One of the ripest areas for this gamesmanship to occur is in the use of accident videotape.

Premise liability defendants often have videotape of the accident. Rarely is it produced presuit, even when doing so might head off a lawsuit. Proof that tried and true policies aren’t always the best. Even during suit, defendants resist turning over the tape. In the hope of catching Plaintiffs giving testimony inconsistent with the events captured on tape, even if the inconsistencies are based on a lack of clear memory or a lack of knowledge, rather than untruthfulness, they want to question plaintiffs before producing the accident footage.
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scales of justice.jpgExpert testimony plays a major role in almost every civil and criminal legal case. In Florida state courts expert testimony is governed by sections 90.702-90.706, Florida Statutes. The goal of the statutes is to insure fairness and impartiality in the trial of cases. The standard for when expert testimony is allowed is set forth in

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