WEST PALM BEACH — A Florida appeals court recently ruled that a trial court misread a statute when it ruled against a Chinese drywall manufacture in a punitive damages dispute.
On June 7, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. does not have to turn over the details of a settlement agreement in a previous punitive damages case to stave off a similar suit.
In 2013, a jury awarded $6 million in punitive damages against the company and Knauf Gips KG, which the court refers to as the “Robin action.” The parties in the case then entered into a settlement agreement, according to court documents.
William Bart Ziegler later sued the Knauf Plasterboard for punitive damages, but the defendants alleged that it had already been sufficiently punished in the initial case.
“[The defendants] argued [Florida statute] Section 768.73(2) prohibits a subsequent punitive damage award if punitive damages were previously awarded in any action alleging harm from the same course of conduct for which punitive damages were already awarded,” the appeals court said in its decision.
Ziegler argued that the company never paid punitive damages because it had entered into a settlement. Ziegler then requested that the company turn over the settlement agreement and “copies of the payment check or wire payment.”
The company attempted to halt the request, arguing that the information requested was “irrelevant, confidential and privileged.”
“[The defendants] maintained that the only relevant consideration was the punitive damage ‘award,’ not the amount paid in the Robin action,” alleging that “the plaintiff wanted the information to aid him in negotiating a favorable settlement.”
But the trial court ordered the company to provide the documents.
The company appealed, and the appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision.
“We agree with the drywall defendants’ argument that Section 768.73(2) speaks only in terms of a prior punitive damage ‘award,’” the appeals court said in its decision. “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.”