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Florida’s Abolition of Joint and Several Liability

November 7, 2017

When two or more defendants act to cause an indivisible injury to a plaintiff, each defendant is jointly and severally liable for that injury.  Meaning, each defendant is liable to the plaintiff for the entirety of damages.  In jurisdictions that apply joint and several liability, each defendant is liable even if they acted independent of one another.  If the defendants act independently, and it is possible to determine which injuries were caused by each defendant, then the damage liability will be apportioned among the defendants.

Jointly liable defendants are each 100% responsible for compensating the plaintiff.  Conversely, when fault is proportioned among severally liable plaintiffs, they only owe the plaintiff compensation according to their degree of fault.  However, under the doctrine of Joint and Several Liability, the plaintiff can collect his judgment from any defendant as if they were jointly liable.  The majority of jurisdictions still maintain some form of Joint and Several Liability.

In 2006, Florida abolished Joint and Several Liability.  A landmark decision from the Florida Supreme Court demonstrates the shift away from joint and several liability.  In Walt Disney World Co. v. Wood, the plaintiff “was injured in November 1971 at the grand prix attraction at Walt Disney World (Disney), when her fiancé, Daniel Wood, rammed from the rear the vehicle which she was driving.”  The jury in Wood found that the plaintiff 14% at fault, her fiancé 85% at fault, and Disney 1% at fault.  Under the doctrine of Joint and Several Liability, Disney was 86% liable and ordered to compensate the plaintiff.  The Florida Supreme Court addressed “whether we should now replace the doctrine of joint and several liability with one in which the liability of codefendants to the plaintiff is apportioned according to each defendant’s respective fault.”  Analyzing the issue, the Court reasoned that “[t]here is nothing inherently fair about a defendant who is 10% at fault paying 100% of the loss, and there is no social policy that should compel defendants to pay more than their fair share of the loss.”  Ultimately, the Court held that “[i]n view of the public policy considerations bearing on the issue, this Court believes that the viability of the doctrine is a matter which should best be decided by the legislature. Consequently, we approve the decision of the district court of appeal.”  That came to fruition over time, and in 2006 the Florida legislature completely abolished the doctrine.

The import of this legislative decision is that plaintiffs can no longer recover damages from one defendant.  Like the plaintiff in Wood, plaintiffs in Joint and Several Liability jurisdictions will proceed with claims against multiple defendants, even if most of them are not solvent, so long as one of the defendants has deep pockets.  Under the doctrine of comparative liability, Florida’s replacement for Joint and Several Liability, Disney would have only owed the plaintiff in Wood for 1% of the liability.

Joint and Several Liability gives plaintiffs a greater chance of recovery but can be unfair to defendants.  Comparative liability apportions fault and only obligates defendants respective of their fault.  This system of apportioning fault can also present greater challenges for plaintiffs during settlement negotiations.  If you or a loved one have been injured, contact Bryan W. Crews, an Orlando personal injury attorney.  Calculating damages can be difficult, and Bryan W. Crews will work tirelessly on your behalf to secure the greatest possible outcome.

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