Bicycle Verdict Reversed

As a bicycle injury lawyer Miami, FL, I have tried personal injury and medical malpractice jury civil trials across the State of Florida for more than 22 years.  And as in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, jurors are not always told only the facts of a given case in accordance with the Rules of Evidence. There are hundreds of rules and exceptions, but the basic concept boils down to the following: Is the alleged fact one that is more helpful or not for a juror to know in determining the truth, or as we lawyers are taught to argue, “Does the probative value outweigh the prejudice” of a given fact?

One of the most debated and controversial issues as a personal injury lawyer Miami, FL  I see come up in most traffic accident claims in Florida involves the issue of collateral sources.  A collateral source set-off is the legal concept intended to prevent injured people from obtaining double payment for the same damages, usually medical expenses from two or more different sources—for example, making and getting a verdict for medical expenses in a car accident case from both the defendant and the injury victim’s own health insurance.

Vehicle-vs-Bicycle-Crash-with-Person

Your bicycle accident may involve uninsured motorist insurance.

I had imagined that virtually every possible combination of fact and law surrounding the concept of collateral sources had been litigated and ruled upon over the last 30 years. Recently, Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal faced a case of first impression, meaning an issue was presented for the very first time. A Florida man, John Joerg, a developmentally-disabled adult, sued State Farm for uninsured motorist insurance coverage after he was hit by a car driven by William Lazar and seriously injured while riding his bicycle.

He sued Lazar and settled but went to trial against State Farm for his uninsured motorist insurance benefits (which provide coverage for cyclists involved in traffic accidents) and won a verdict of $469,076, which included future medical expenses calculated at the full Medicare rates, not the lower reimbursement rates.  State Farm appealed on the basis that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the lower rates.

The issue at his bicycle accident trial was whether or not the jury could or should have considered Mr. Joerg’s future Medicare benefits in determining his future damages.  In other words, are potential future Medicare benefits a collateral source that the jury should be told about.  Astonishingly, until now there has been no precedent or any other Florida appellate court decision that directly and unequivocally answers this question.

COMMON LAW HISTORY OF COLLATERAL SOURCE IN FLORIDA

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1984 in the case of Florida Physicians Insurance Reciprocal v. Stanley—a medical malpractice birth-trauma case of a Florida child born with retardation and cerebral palsy—that only benefits that have been paid are subject to being excluded from the jurors’ ears, but unearned or future benefits can be discussed.

Candidly, as a personal injury lawyer Miami, FL, I cannot see the Court’s reasoning in not permitting jurors to learn about past benefits yet permitting them to hear about future benefits, which have not been determined or paid.  I believe that it is confusing to allow the jurors to know about future potential benefits, which by their very nature are less certain and lead to guessing, while preventing jurors from learning about the exact amount of money that has been paid and is certain.

I feel that neither should be told to jurors; instead, it should be the trial judge who makes the appropriate deductions to a verdict, once it has been reached, and then only for those benefits that have actually been paid.  But the Supreme Court reasoned that allowing jurors to guess about future damages did not harm either party since they were free to award more or less than either side argued would be needed in the future. Incredibly, the Stanley ruling has not been overruled or legislatively altered in nearly 30 years.

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EVIDENCE OF COLLATERAL SOURCES

Florida’s collateral source law is complicated.  For one thing, Broward County personal injury lawyers like me generally do not want jurors to think, much less know, that there are other sources of potential recovery for our clients; the jury might then withhold a full verdict with the expectation that the victim’s medical expenses might be covered by health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid.

As a bicycle accident lawyer in South Florida, I strongly believe that injured people should not be punished simply because they had the forethought or financial wellbeing to insure themselves for accidents, injuries, or death.  Moreover, the existence of health insurance should not reward corporations and other wrongdoers for their negligence by lowering the amount of financial accountability they may have for the harm they cause.  Florida’s evidence law supports this concept, by preventing the admission of evidence at trial of any plaintiff’s collateral source or other source of payment for medical expenses or lost wages.

SET-OFFS FOR COLLATERAL SOURCES

The courtroom rules for damages are of course different than the rules of evidence, because they are designed to prevent a “windfall” for injured plaintiffs who might otherwise receive “inflated” or “duplicative damage awards.”   In 1986, Florida’s Legislature enacted the Tort Reform Act, which among other things mandated that certain kinds of statutorily defined collateral sources must be deducted from jury awards by the trial judge for “past damages.”

THE COURT’S DECISION

After balancing both the rules of evidence, which permit jurors to hear about unpaid or unearned benefits, with the rules about set-off damages from collateral sources, the 2nd District Court of Appeal relied upon the Stanley ruling and concluded that its “raison d’etre” is the focus on earned versus unearned collateral sources.  Since Mr. Joerg did not contribute to the financing of his Medicare program (because he is disabled), the jury should have been advised about his future, uncertain, and speculative Medicare payments even though the Court acknowledged that this information might be prejudicial to his case.  The Appellate Court reversed the entire verdict, thereby forcing Mr. Joerg to retry his case with the jury’s being told about his future Medicare payments.  We wish him well in his new trial.

If you have been involved in a bicycle accident in Miami, Broward, Palm Beach, or any other county in Florida, please Email me, Spencer Aronfeld, or call our bicycle injury law firm for a free initial legal consultation at 305-441-0440 or Toll Free at 866-597-4529.  Our lawyers are passionate about protecting the rights of cyclists. And remember to always wear a helmet when riding, even if you are just going around the block.

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