Regardless of what type or size of business you own or operate, you may at some point find yourself in a dispute that ends up in court. Litigation is generally not good for business, as the processes involved are complex, time-consuming and often expensive. In response to concerns raised by business litigators, the Florida Supreme Court recently instituted four changes to state court rules that are likely to create more efficient procedures and perhaps yield fairer outcomes in these cases.
The first rule change reforms the standard for granting summary judgment. When there is no genuine issue of material fact — meaning a fact that makes a difference to the case —the moving party is entitled to a judgment without the need to go to trial. Previously, Florida imposed a strict standard of proof when deciding such motions. The rule change imposes the simpler standard used by federal courts, making it easier for businesses to end or limit meritless lawsuits.
The second change concerns the apex doctrine, which had allowed high-level government officials to ask for a court order relieving them of being subject to pre-trial depositions. The doctrine has been expanded to cover corporate officers as well. An officer seeking the rule’s protection must submit an affidavit or declaration stating that he or she lacks unique, personal knowledge of the issues being litigated. The opposing party can rebut that assertion only by showing that the officer has such information and that it can’t be obtained otherwise. This is a heavy burden, since the very purpose of the deposition is to find out what the officer knows.
The third rule change affects punitive damages, which courts award to punish defendants for egregious conduct. A grant of punitive damages allows a plaintiff to seek discovery of a defendant’s finances, since those will factor into the amount of punitives awarded. Although defendants usually can’t appeal an award of damages until the case is over, this rule change allows them to immediately appeal a decision permitting a request for punitive damages. As a result, a business need not truly worry about paying punitive damages or answering financial discovery until the appeal is decided.
The fourth rule change prohibits proposals for settlement from including often-used non-monetary terms, such as releasing the defendant from liability for any other claims the plaintiff might have against them, agreeing to cooperate with the plaintiff in future litigation or agreeing not to disclose the terms of the settlement. The proposal for settlement may, however, include dismissal of the lawsuit with prejudice, thereby preventing relitigation of the claims alleged. This rule change could significantly affect business litigation strategy, since a proposal for settlement can trigger liability for attorneys’ fees.
H. Clay Parker, Esq., with offices located in Orlando, represents businesses in litigation matters throughout central Florida. Call 407-216-2504 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation.