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Maritime Law--2 Big Decisions from the Florida Supreme Court

This week is an active one for the Florida Supreme Court.


The first case up for discussion is State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Curran, SC12-157 (Fla. Mar. 13, 2014).

After the Plaintiff was rear-ended by an underinsured motorist (UM), Plaintiff requested her $100,000 UM policy limits from State Farm. Plaintiff indicated that her damages were estimated to be $3.5 million because she suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. State Farm responded that Plaintiff must schedule a compulsory medical examination (CME) pursuant to the terms of the policy. Plaintiff refused to attend a CME and instead filed suit against State Farm. The trial court entered judgment against State Farm for the UM policy limits. The court of appeal affirmed, holding (1) Plaintiff breached the contract when she failed to attend the CME; but (2) State Farm must plead and prove prejudice to avoid liability based on noncompliance with the CME clause, and State Farm failed to meet its burden in this case. The Supreme Court approved of the court of appeal’s decision, holding (1) the forfeiture of benefits under a UM policy will not automatically result upon an insured’s breach of a CME provision unless the insurer pleads and proves actual prejudice as an element of its affirmative defense; and (2) the undisputed facts demonstrate that State Farm was not prejudiced in this case.

This case, because it involves a car accident case, would not appear to affect those of us that handle marine insurance matters. However, absent controlling federal  maritime law or a determination that the interests of national uniformity require that a rule of federal maritime law be fashioned, the interpretation of a contract of marine insurance will abide state law. Therefore, the argument to be made is that the insurer will be required to prove actual prejudice in the event the insured breaches the insurance contract when it fails to undertake an action post-loss.

The second case up for discussion is Estate of McCall v. United States, SC11-1148  (Fla. Mar. 13, 2014). Here, Michelle McCall received prenatal medical care at a United States Air Force clinic as an Air Force dependent. McCall died after delivering her son as a result of severe blood loss. Petitioners filed an action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The federal district court found the United States liable under the FTCA. The court concluded that Petitioners’ economic damages amounted to $980,462 and Petitioners’ noneconomic damages totaled $2 million. However, the district court limited Petitioners’ recovery of wrongful death noneconomic damages to $1 million after applying Fla. Stat. section 766.118, Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages based on medical malpractice claims. The district court subsequently denied Petitioners’ motion challenging the constitutionality of the wrongful death statutory cap. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the application of the statutory cap on noneconomic damages and held that the statute was not unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court accepted certification to answer questions of Florida law and answered by holding the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages provided in Fla. Stat. section 766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.

Again, this appears to be one of those cases that would not apply in a maritime context. However, in cases where a federal maritime law statute would not be applicable, arguably state law applies to any liability. The law of Florida now is that statutory caps on wrongful death noneconomic damages violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.

If you are interested in receiving copies of the decisions cited above or otherwise wish to reach me, you may do so by writing to me at mov@chaloslaw.com.

 

 

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