In an effort to address the problem of excessive, multiple punishment, the Florida Legislature enacted a statute that “punitive damages may not be awarded against a defendant in a civil action if that defendant establishes, before trial, that punitive damages have previously been awarded against that defendant in any state or federal court in any action alleging harm from the same act or single course of conduct for which the claimant seeks compensatory damages.” The statute contains an escape hatch that allows for additional awards of punitive damages “if the court determines by clear and convincing evidence that the amount of prior punitive damages awarded was insufficient to punish that defendant’s behavior.”

Surprisingly, in the nearly two decades since the statute was enacted, there have been almost no appellate decisions interpreting the statute. That changed in June, when the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District held in Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. v. Ziegler that the statute applies whenever there has been a prior award of punitive damages for the same course of conduct and that there is no requirement that the award have been paid (as opposed to resolved via settlement).

As the court explained, the statute “speaks only in terms of a prior punitive damage ‘award.’ In fact, some derivation of the word ‘award’ appears eight times within this subsection. But, not once does any derivation of the word ‘paid’ appear.” Because the statute “is clear on its face,” the court declined to “infer any other meaning than the plain words chosen by the legislature.”

The upshot of the decision is that plaintiffs will not be permitted to take discovery regarding the ultimate resolution of a punitive damages award. So long as an award has been returned, the only remaining question is whether the amount awarded “was insufficient to punish [the] defendant’s behavior.”

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