850 So.2d 474 (Fla. 2003), SC01-2010, Rowell v. Holt

Docket Nº:SC01-2010.
Citation:850 So.2d 474, 28 Fla. L. Weekly S 491
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lewis, J.
Party Name:JOHN C. ROWELL, Petitioner, v. JULIANNE M. HOLT, Respondent.
Attorney:Theodore Ted E. Karatinos of Seeley & Karatinos, P.A., St. Petersburg,
Case Date:June 26, 2003
Court:Supreme Court of Florida
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 474

850 So.2d 474 (Fla. 2003)

28 Fla. L. Weekly S 491

JOHN C. ROWELL, Petitioner,

v.

JULIANNE M. HOLT, Respondent.

No. SC01-2010.

Florida Supreme Court.

June 26, 2003.

Page 475

Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal -Certified Great Public Importance, Second District -Case No. 2D00-2685, Hillsborough County

Theodore "Ted" E. Karatinos of Seeley & Karatinos, P.A., St. Petersburg, Florida; and James W. Holliday of Prugh, Holliday & Deem, P.L., Tampa, Florida, for Petitioner.

Todd W. Vraspir of Papy, Weissenborn, Poole & Vraspir, P.A., Spring Hill, Florida, for Respondent.

Joseph W. Little, Gainesville, Florida; Robert C. Widman, Venice, Florida; and Robert V. Potter, Jr., Clearwater, Florida, for Ernest Morgan and Beverly Keehnle, Amici Curiae

LEWIS, J.

We have for review a decision of a district court of appeal on the following question, which the court certified to be of great public importance:

DOES THE IMPACT RULE APPLY TO PROHIBIT THE RECOVERY OF NONECONOMIC DAMAGES IN A LEGAL MALPRACTICE CLAIM WHEN THE NEGLIGENCE OF A CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY RESULTS IN A LOSS OF LIBERTY AND RESULTING EMOTIONAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM?

Holt v. Rowell, 798 So.2d 767, 773 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. Because we believe the instant case presents a unique factual scenario deserving of an equally tailored principle of law, we rephrase the certified question as follows:

IN AN ACTION FOR LEGAL MALPRACTICE, DOES THE IMPACT RULE PRECLUDE RECOVERY OF NONECONOMIC DAMAGES WHEN THE UNCONTROVERTED NEGLIGENT FAILURE TO DELIVER A

Page 476

DOCUMENT THAT WOULD HAVE PRODUCED THE IMMEDIATE RELEASE OF A PRETRIAL DETAINEE RESULTED IN A PROTRACTED PERIOD OF WRONGFUL PRETRIAL IMPRISONMENT WITH RESULTANT EMOTIONAL DISTRESS OR PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM, BUT NO PHYSICAL IMPACT?

For the following reasons, we answer the rephrased certified question in the negative. We therefore quash that portion of the district court’s decision reversing the jury award of damages for psychological injury, and remand the case for reinstatement of the award of noneconomic damages.

BACKGROUND AND FACTS

The facts underlying the instant action, exhaustively well detailed in the district court’s decision below, are as follows:

In May 1995, John Rowell sold two firearms to a pawnshop. Based upon these sales, Mr. Rowell was arrested on July 6, 1995, in Marion County, Florida, for two counts of felon in possession of a firearm. In fact, Mr. Rowell was innocent of these charges. Although Mr. Rowell had been convicted of a felony in 1966 when he was 22 years of age, he had received a restoration of his civil rights on June 18, 1975. Mr. Rowell was unable to convince the arresting officers that he was innocent of the crimes charged. He was transported to the Hillsborough County Jail, where he remained overnight until his first appearance hearing scheduled for the following morning, July 7, 1995.

In the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, preliminary presentation hearings are often performed via closed circuit television. The defendants are physically located at the jail, and an assistant public defender is assigned to this location. A second assistant public defender is present in the courtroom with the presiding judge and the assistant state attorney.

At Mr. Rowell’s preliminary presentation hearing on the morning of Friday, July 7, an assistant public defender at the jail spoke with Mr. Rowell, and Mr. Rowell signed an affidavit of indigency and an invocation of rights, thus establishing an attorney-client relationship with the Office of the Public Defender. Mr. Rowell had in his possession a document indicating that his civil rights had been restored. When the trial judge called Mr. Rowell’s case, Mr. Rowell told the trial judge directly that he had proof of the restoration of his civil rights and held up the document. Because the trial judge could not see the contents of the document, the trial judge instructed the assistant public defender to obtain a copy of that document so that the case could be resolved if Mr. Rowell was indeed permitted to possess a firearm. On the videotape of this event, Mr. Rowell can be seen handing the document to the assistant public defender at the jail. It is not clear what the assistant public defender who received the document did with it after this hearing. At the time of trial, the assistant public defender could not remember following up on the judge’s instructions.

The first appearance judge, concerned that Mr. Rowell might be wrongfully charged, ordered that Mr. Rowell’s case be placed on the docket for review on Tuesday, July 11, four days later. This hearing never occurred. According to the assistant public defenders involved in this case, they took no responsibility in keeping track of these types of hearings; instead, they traditionally relied exclusively upon the clerk of the court to properly document and schedule them. It appears that the clerk in this case mistakenly noted that the hearing would

Page 477

be held on July 15, a Saturday on which no hearings were held. Although hearings presumably occurred before this judge with the participation of assistant public defenders on July 11, Mr. Rowell's case was not addressed. As a result, Mr. Rowell remained in jail past July 11 and July 15.

Meanwhile, through the natural process of opening files, Mr. Rowell’s case was assigned to a third assistant public defender. This attorney first reviewed the file on July 12, 1995. The file did not contain the document indicating Mr. Rowell’s civil rights had been restored or any notation that a hearing had been scheduled. The assistant public defender therefore gave the case no particular priority, but scheduled his first visit with Mr. Rowell at the jail on July 18, 1995. Once this assistant public defender met with Mr. Rowell on July 18, and Mr. Rowell provided the attorney with yet another copy of the document restoring Mr. Rowell’s civil rights, the assistant public defender was able to obtain Mr. Rowell’s release from jail within two days. The charges against Mr. Rowell were ultimately dismissed.

Mr. Rowell filed a legal malpractice action against the Office of the Public Defender. At trial, he contended that the assistant public defenders handling his case were negligent, because he presented them with a document that could have secured his immediate release, yet it took them over ten days to do so. As a result, he requested damages including his lost earning capacity and damages for his “loss of liberty,” including the mental anguish, inconvenience, and embarrassment caused by his unnecessarily extended incarceration.

Throughout the trial, counsel for the Office of the Public Defender sought to limit Mr. Rowell’s recovery to his economic damages because Mr. Rowell had not suffered any impact or physical injury as a result of his incarceration. The trial judge rejected this argument and held that the “impact rule” did not apply in this context . . . .

The jury found that the assistant public defenders were negligent, and their negligence caused Mr. Rowell to suffer certain damages. They awarded Mr. Rowell $504 for his loss of earning capacity and $16,500 for his mental anguish, pain, and suffering. After the verdict, the Office of the Public Defender filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, again challenging the award of noneconomic damages as a violation of the impact rule. The trial court denied this motion and entered a final judgment in favor of Mr. Rowell in accordance with the jury’s verdict.

Rowell, 798 So.2d at 768-70.

Based on the facts presented, the district court following existing precedent, as required, held that existing Florida law pertaining to the impact rule precluded an award of damages for mental injury, and begrudgingly reversed that portion of the jury award. See id. at 770. The district court articulately expressed its misgivings and reservations with regard to applying the impact rule in the context of Rowell’s action, but did so with the certification of a question to this Court to determine whether the rule should preclude recovery for emotional harm in the instant case. See id. at 770-72. This review followed.

ANALYSIS

We begin our analysis of the question presented with a brief review of the impact rule as it has been applied by the courts in this state. The rule requires that “before a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another, the emotional distress

Page 478

suffered must flow from physical injuries sustained in an impact.” R.J. v. Humana of...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP