September 13, 2023
Torres-Aponte v. Sabrina’s Trucking and Hudnall, Case No. 20-CA-007146 (2023)
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in and for Hillsborough County, Florida
This matter involved an admitted fault, rear-end auto accident that occurred on February 14, 2019. Plaintiff filed suit in Hillsborough County, Florida on September 9, 2020. Plaintiff claimed cervical injury requiring injections followed by disc replacement surgery as a result of the accident. She also claimed future surgery was necessary. The total economic damages claimed were approximately $240,000 in past medical specials, $150,000 in future medical specials and Plaintiff asked the jury for nearly $3M inclusive of pain and suffering. Following a 6 day trial, the jury returned a verdict of $373,613.00. Most importantly, to our knowledge this is the first case tried to verdict in the State that applied newly created Florida Statute 768.0427.
First, some history. On March 24, 2023, Gov. DeSantis signed into law House Bill 837 encompassing multiple tort reform measures, including a change in the necessary proof of damages by a plaintiff in personal injury matters. From House Bill 837, Florida Statute 768.0427, titled Admissibility of evidence to prove medical expenses in person injury of wrongful death actions; disclosure of letters of protection; recovery of past and future medical expenses damages, was created. Importantly, the changes require a plaintiff to reveal the disparity in what medical providers charge for medical treatment versus what they routinely accept as payment for the same medical treatment from sources such as health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. The perceived effect of this change is to prevent juror misconception of the reasonable and ordinary cost of medical damages such that verdicts reflect true case values in place of inflated, phantom numbers that so often lead to excessive verdicts.
In response to this new law, our attorneys filed a Motion in Limine seeking the right to apply 768.0427 to the pending case, arguing this statute did not affect substantive rights but was instead procedural and therefore, was applicable to all pending matters so long as it made sense given the posture of the case. The defense also argued that a trial judge had the right to assume the act was constitutional and that the trial judge had authority to apply it. The Plaintiff opposed the motion and argued that the statute did not apply to pending cases based on the language of the act stating “[e]xcept as otherwise expressly provided in this act, this act shall apply to causes of action filed after [March 24, 2023.]
These or similar arguments have been made throughout the State with differing responses from the judiciary. In the days before trial was to start, the trial court granted the defense motion. As a result, the defense argued Plaintiff was limited in her presentation of evidence for medical damages to the amounts actually paid to medical providers where any health insurance was used, to share with the jury the amounts that health insurance would have paid for the claimed medical care even if the plaintiff did not use her available health insurance and to disclose the source of any referrals of the Plaintiff to medical providers treating her under letters of protection.
Given the short time between the Court’s ruling applying 768.0427 to the case and the trial and with no prior rulings as a guide, the parties took competing positions on how 768.0427 applied and should be complied with leading to rulings in favor of and against both sides. It is these rulings that are anticipated to become the basis for appeals where the central question will be whether Fla. Stat. 768.0427 was properly applied to this matter and therefore should be applied to all pending matters where it makes sense given the posture of the case. In light of the volume of cases that were filed statewide in the weeks leading to the signing of the Tort Reform Act, an appellate decision in favor of application of 768.0427 would affect far reaching changes considered beneficial for all defendants in personal injury matters.
Should you have any questions or concerns regarding how this opinion might affect your business interests, case or claim, please do not hesitate to reach out to a Wicker Smith partner for clarification.