Appeals Court Reinstates Challenge to Florida’s Tort-Reform Law

A trial court in Florida erred in declaring unconstitutional a series of tort-reform initiatives enacted by the state, an appeals court has held, saying there was no live controversy between the parties. State of Florida et al. v. Florida Consumer Action Network et al., No. 1D01-787 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App., 1st Dist., Oct. 9, 2002).The lower court had ruled that the laws ran afoul of the “single-subject” requirement of Article III, Section 6, of the Florida Constitution.The dispute arose after a group of organizational plaintiffs filed a challenge to the enactment of a comprehensive tort-reform law. The new package of laws includes requirements that the parties mediate certain types of actions and that the state create trial-resolution judges. The laws also placed caps on punitive damages and imposed sanctions for unsupported claims or defenses.The plaintiffs sought a declaration against the state of Florida, alleging in 16 counts why they considered the law unconstitutional. Among the grounds raised, the plaintiffs claimed the law violated the single-subject requirement of the Florida Constitution “by embracing a myriad of subjects and thereby becoming a vehicle for logrolling by a variety of special interests that sought specific and unrelated protections from liability concerns,” the appeals court said.The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, claiming there was no live controversy between the parties.The trial court denied the motion and subsequently entered summary final judgment for the plaintiffs, finding the law to be a violation of the state constitution’s single-subject requirement. In reversing that decision, the Florida First District Court of Appeal said the plaintiffs’ asserted claims of injury were “nonspecific and hypothetical,” and did no more than question the constitutionality of the tort- reform legislation based on “vague, general fears of possible future harm.”Further, the court said, the plaintiffs failed to identify how any particular provision of the legislation would directly affect or harm them, nor did they dispute the meaning or impact of any individual provision or law.Instead, the appeals court said, the plaintiffs apparently only want the tort-reform law struck because they oppose its substantive content.”The sole doubt they expressed was whether they have to obey the laws that they contend affect them, because, in their opinion, the legislation is unconstitutional,” the court said. “Obviously, such allegations cannot make out a proper case for the exercise of a court’s declaratory judgment power.”Based on this analysis, the appeals court reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and remanded with instructions that the trial court should dismiss the case with prejudice.The court then certified for appeal to the state supreme court the question of whether a justiciable issue exists as pleaded by the plaintiffs.The plaintiffs include the Florida Consumer Action Network, the Coalition for Family Safety Inc., the Florida League of Conservation Voters, the Florida AFL-CIO, the Association of Flight Attendants, DES Action USA, the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches, the Florida National Organization of Women, the Children’s Advocacy Foundation Inc. and the Florida State Council of Senior Citizens.In addition to the state, the defendants include Publix Supermarkets, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Associated Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Institute of CPAs, the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida United Business Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Association of Community Hospitals and Health System of Florida, the city of Orlando, Dade County, the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Sheriffs Association, Tort Reform United Effort, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Usher Land & Timber Inc., M.A. Rigatoni Inc., Dietrich Brothers Inc. (also known as Flying “D” Ranch), and H. Fred Dietrich III.