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Apportionment of Damages

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Personal Injury

As discussed by the Gainesville injury team of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A., in the section entitled ‘comparative negligence,’ the amount of damages awarded to a particular claimant is dependent upon the percentage of fault assigned to each party. In order to understand negligence law in Florida, in terms of apportionment of damages, it is helpful to differentiate between the concepts of (1) liability, and (2) damages. While the two are clearly related, it is important understand basic principles associated with each individually, prior to understanding their relationship with one another.

There are many variations in use of the words ‘liable’ and ‘liability’ that are grammatically proper, particularly in the legal setting. In regards to Florida auto negligence claims, consider the term ‘liability’ as a reference to the fault assigned to a party for the causal factors associated with an accident or injury. Although this may seem simple, the concept of ‘liability,’ can become a much more complicated assessment if you consider the uniqueness of each type of accident. Just consider an accident involving multiple vehicles, multiple injuries, or both. While it is possible that liability or fault for the accident, can be equally distributed amongst two or more parties, this does not necessarily mean that no party will recover any damages.

Prior to applying the concept of liability to an actual scenario, consider the concept of damages, in and of itself. In most cases, the jury will assign the amount of damages that they feel a particular claimant is entitled to recover. Because every injury and claim is unique, rarely are damages distributed equally—but this is not to say that this is an impossibility.

After understanding the concepts, of both liability and damages, we can now put it all together. Florida Statute § 627.736 (3), APPORTIONMENT OF DAMAGES, provides in part:

“In a negligence action, the court shall enter judgment against each party liable on the basis of such party’s percentage of fault and not on the basis of the doctrine of joint and several liability.”

Because every case is unique, no legal professional could pre-determine the precise manner in which a jury might assess liability or apportion damages. What is certain is that issues of both liability and damages must be decided at some point—whether during stages of pre-litigation or trial, and whether by judge or jury. Let’s explore some hypotheticals…

Consider a scenario in which liability, in a two-vehicle auto collision, has been allocated equally between the two parties. While many might assume that this 50/50 distribution in liability would send each party home empty-handed, this would only be true in the event that the amount of damages awarded to each party, are EXACTLY equal. Now, consider the scenario of three vehicles involved in an accident, and it is subsequently determined that each party is one-third liable. Again, only if the damages for each party are determined to be equivalent would each party’s damages be offset by one another, essentially resulting in no recovery.

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It is important to understand that in jury trials, the members of the jury are rarely sent blindly to deliberate each and every issue of liability and damages. Rather, jury instruction provide the finders of fact with the tools necessary to determine the issues that remain in dispute.

While there are many examples that could be provided, a good analogy to assist in understanding this notion, are cases in which an issue has been previously determined, whether regarding liability or damages. This can either result by agreement amongst parties, but more commonly occurs through a party’s motion to the court requesting a conclusive ruling on an issue of law, as opposed to an issue of fact. Compare ‘issue of law’ to ‘issue of fact’—the judge decides the former, while the jury decides the latter.

In some cases, liability issues have been pre-determined, such as where the parties agree on the percentage of fault that should be attributed to each party, or where summary judgment, or other court ruling removes an issue from the dispute. In some cases, issues associated with the calculation of damages have been previously resolved.

In another example, following a two-vehicle accident (with no subsequent claims or injuries extending from original incident or other distinguishing factors), the parties agree that each party is entitled to a certain damage award, but the parties do not agree on the amount of liability to be assigned to each. In order to determine damage awards for each, it is necessary to consider the percentage of fault assigned to each.

In the rare case where all issues pertaining to liability and damages have been resolved, the need to proceed to trial becomes unnecessary. As attorneys that represent the Plaintiffs of personal injury actions, such rulings are ideal. However, the more common occurrence is where parties agree on nothing, and judicial rulings leave multiple issues in dispute.

While jury instructions are a critical component to the successful litigation of any matter, they generally become increasingly important with each issue that the jury is sent to deliberate upon. In some cases, apportioning damages involves additional considerations, such as where liability and/or damages must be assigned to non-parties associated with the dispute.

As attorneys with decades of experience, we understand that the jury instructions are a vital role in the apportionment of damages, and that practice experience in this area can often be critical to a claimant’s recovery of damages. The Gainesville – Ocala Lawyers of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. possess the knowledge and skill necessary to seek justice and compensation on behalf of you and your loved ones.