Recently, a Miami jury awarded $27.7 million in punitive damages to the Pereira family after Judge Schlesinger allowed them to consider whether punitive damages should be awarded in a hit and run accident as a result of a defendant’s failure to stay on scene; a novel concept being that most behavior warranting punitive damages occurs before the wrongful conduct.
It was a Monday night on a one-lane road on Northwest 12th Avenue and Northwest 108th Terrace just before 9:30 p.m. Sixteen year-old Cash Pereira was skateboarding down the street when he was suddenly struck by the defendant, Gabriel Fleuricourt, from his skateboard. While the defendant claims it was an accident, and that he was just trying to pass the car ahead of him, the defendant’s next actions are what contributed to the punitive damages award and young Cash’s death.
The defendant, Mr. Fleuricourt, did not stop. He did not try and help. He did not stay and call the paramedics. Knowing that young Cash did not have anything to stand between his young body and the metal frame of his vehicle, Mr. Fleuricourt still made the wilful and deliberate decision to flee the scene where he had just struck young Cash off his skateboard. He never stopped to render aid to young Cash as he laid on the one-lane road. Stopping to render aid could have made a difference to Cash Pereira’s life. Stopping to render aid could have at least provided young Cash a chance.
In the Daily Business Review published on October 16, 2017, it was reported that prior to allowing the Plaintiff to move forward on punitive damages, Judge Scola, who was substituting for Judge Schlesinger, informed the plaintiff’s attorney that he needed to demonstrate that there was a connection between young Cash dying at the scene, and the defendant’s decision to flee rather than stop and render aid. Judge Scola wanted more support because there is no case law explicitly stating that leaving the scene of an accident warrants punitive damages as a matter of law.
Under Florida law, for punitive damages to be awarded, the plaintiff must prove that defendant “had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and the high probability that injury or damage…would result” or “that the defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanton in care that it constituted a conscious disregard of indifference to life [or] safety.” In the plaintiff attorney’s second motion for punitive damages, he argued that a lack of timely medical treatment was the nexus between the defendant fleeing the scene and Cash’s death. This was corroborated by one of the detectives, who told the court that there were approximately ten minutes that passed between the crash and the arrival of the first responders. The detective stated that those minutes are critical and possibly could have saved Cash’s life. Judge Schlesinger granted the second motion for punitive damages, and at trial, the jurors awarded $37 million dollars to the Pereira family, which included $27.7 million in punitive damages.
When there is no case law on whether punitive damages are permitted as a matter of law, as an advocate, you cannot back down from arguing why you believe your specific case warrants punitive damages. It requires more work. It requires more analysis, but in the end, your ability to think outside the box and think through the facts of your case is absolutely necessary to help your client, and the greater community at large. While compensatory damages are meant to pay your client for what he or she specifically suffered, punitive damages are meant to tell your surrounding community that the conduct in question, like leaving the scene of an accident, will not be tolerated.
Tip your cap to attorney Justin Shapiro for his great work for the family of young Cash Pereira and for the great work that he has done for plaintiff’s all over Miami and Florida. As s result of his passionate and zealous advocacy, plaintiff’s attorneys around the state, and possibly the country, can use Judge Schlesinger’s order as persuasive authority when advocating for punitive damages in hit-and-run accidents.