TALLAHASSEE - A Florida Supreme Court decision handed down last month will make it easier for plaintiffs to pursue personal injury lawsuits in pollution-related cases, according to those familiar with the case.
“I think the case is significant,” William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, told the Florida Record. “Florida law now allows a statutory strict liability right of action for personal injury damages resulting from a discharge or other condition of pollution. Now a plaintiff can bring such a personal injury claim without having to prove negligence or causation."
The state’s high court handed down its ruling on Dec. 19 in the case of Charles Lieupo v. Simon’s Trucking. A trial court initially awarded Lieupo, a tow truck driver, $5.2 million for injuries he sustained while coming into contact with corrosive battery acid after responding to a big-rig accident in north-central Florida, near Jasper.
The cause of the crash was due to the driver of the Simon’s truck suffering a heart attack, not negligence,
The First District Court of Appeal invalidated the damages award, based on its interpretation of a 1983 state water quality law. The appeals court found that a related 1970 statute did not permit recovery of damages for personal injury.
But the state Supreme Court last month stepped back from its decision in a previous case that the appeals court relied on and concluded the 1983 law does indeed allow for recovery for such damages.
Armando Edmiston, a personal injury attorney in Tampa, said the decision could expose businesses to a wide array of personal injury claims, even when the plaintiff is unable to show the defendant acted in a negligent manner.
“If you’re a business owner, you need regulations in place so you’re disposing of potentially harmful components in the correct manner,” Edmiston told the Record. He added that mass torts against companies handling materials improperly could also result from the ruling.
Lieupo’s initial damages award has been controversial because he also said he came into contact with fire ants while responding to the accident. Simon’s Trucking argued during the trial that Lieupo’s skin injuries may have been related to ant bites and a pre-existing condition.
The Dec. 19 decision mentioned that state lawmakers could revisit the statute in question, in the event the language of the law was not as they intended.
“If the text of the statute is overly broad as suggested by Simon’s Trucking, that is an issue for the Legislature to address,” the court decision states.