Wackenhut Corp. v. Canty, 47442

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Citation359 So.2d 430
Docket NumberNo. 47442,47442
PartiesThe WACKENHUT CORPORATION et al., Petitioners, v. Richard CANTY, Respondent.
Decision Date04 April 1978

Page 430

359 So.2d 430
The WACKENHUT CORPORATION et al., Petitioners,
Richard CANTY, Respondent.
No. 47442.
Supreme Court of Florida.
April 4, 1978.
Rehearing Denied May 24, 1978.

Page 431

James E. Tribble of Backwell, Walker, Gray, Powers, Flick & Hoehl, Miami, for petitioners.

Edward A. Perse of Horton, Perse & Ginsberg, and Ronald I. Strauss of Highsmith, Strauss & Nelson, Miami, for respondent.

SUNDBERG, Justice.

This cause is before us on a petition for writ of certiorari because the decision of the District Court of Appeal, Canty v. Wackenhut, 311 So.2d 808 (Fla. 3d DCA 1975), allegedly conflicts with the decisions of this Court in Cloud v. Fallis, 110 So.2d 669 (Fla.1959) and Bennett v. Jacksonville Expressway Authority, 131 So.2d 740 (Fla.1961). We have jurisdiction. Article V, Section 3(b)(3), Florida Constitution.

On October 26, 1972 respondent made several purchases in a discount store in Miami, Florida. His shirt was worn outside his trousers in order to cover a colostomy bag, which respondent wore as the result of colostomy surgery, in which the colon is attached at the upper abdomen to an external bag which collects waste material. After completing the purchases, respondent reached the store's exit and was approached by petitioner's employee, a Spanish-speaking security guard, who demanded to see what respondent carried under his shirt. Respondent's explanation was not understood because of the guard's inability to

Page 432

clearly understand English, and so the guard grabbed the bag and pulled it. As a result respondent suffered a prolapse of the colon which necessitated surgical removal of part of the colon and caused additional health problems. Suit for compensatory and punitive damages followed.

At trial, petitioner's personnel manager testified that prospective employees are required by company policy to fill out application forms in English to test their English language abilities. Apparently the procedure was not observed in this case because the guard testified he was given assistance in filling out his application since he could not read English. After training, which consisted of meetings lasting an aggregate of one hour and fifteen minutes, the guard was given a brief orientation and a guard manual. The manual was printed in English, despite the availability of Spanish manuals.

The jury returned a verdict for respondent of $50,000 compensatory and $180,000 punitive damages. Upon petitioner's motion for a new trial the trial court entered the following order:

"THIS CAUSE came on to be heard before the Court upon the motion of the defendants for a new trial. The Court heard argument of counsel for the respective parties, both plaintiff and defendants. The Court is of the opinion that the compensatory damages awarded are adequately sustained by the evidence but that the amount of punitive damages is so grossly excessive and contrary to the evidence as to shock the conscience of the Court, and that a remititur (sic) to the verdict should be made by the plaintiff to the extent of $130,000. The Court having ordered such a remititur (sic) and the plaintiff, through his counsel, having indicated in open court, upon the Court's announcement of said ruling, that he would not accept the remititur (sic); therefore, in lieu thereof, the Court will grant a new trial to the defendants on all issues as to damages, both compensatory and punitive.

"It is thereupon,

"ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that a new trial is hereby granted as to compensatory and punitive damages only upon the sole ground that the punitive damage verdict is contrary to the evidence and so grossly excessive as to shock the conscience of the Court. In all other respects the motion for new trial is denied."

The District Court of Appeal, Third District, reversed, stating, "There being competent substantial evidence contained in the record in support of the jury's verdict, we hereby reverse the order granting a new trial . . . ." Wackenhut, supra, at 810. This language created conflict with Cloud, supra, in which this Court recognized the impossibility of reconciling the two rules then being applied by Florida appellate courts when reviewing trial court orders granting motions for new trial. One rule, referred to as the substantial competent evidence rule was stated to be "that presence of 'substantial competent evidence' and absence of any showing the jury had been deceived about the force and credibility of the evidence or influenced by outside considerations would demonstrate the error of granting a motion for new trial." Id. at 671. The other rule, referred to as the broad discretion rule was stated at page 671 to be, "that when the verdict is contrary to the 'manifest weight and probative force of the evidence and justice of the cause' a new trial should be granted." In order to dispel the confusion created by the two rules, the competent substantial evidence rule was rejected and the law was restated to be that it is the duty of a judge to grant a new trial when he "concludes that the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence," id. at 673, or if he determines the jury has been influenced by extra-record considerations or misled by the force and credibility of the evidence.

The District Court's decision to reverse the order for new trial because it found substantial competent evidence in the record in support of the jury's verdict clearly conflicts with the Cloud rejection of the substantial competent evidence rule and establishment of the present rule governing

Page 433

appellate review of trial court orders for new trial.

In Bennett v. Jacksonville Expressway Authority, supra, the Cloud rule was liberalized when applied to appellate courts reviewing new trial orders in eminent domain proceedings. The value of two tracts of land was at issue in the trial. Just compensation had been asserted to be $40,300 and $72,750 in the declaration of taking and had been valued at $47,755 and $74,210 by a court-appointed appraiser. Given an opportunity to amend its declaration of taking the State again represented full compensation for the first tract to be $40,300. Full compensation for the second tract was recomputed to be $70,850, slightly less than the value asserted in the original declaration. Despite the relatively consistent valuations asserted once by court-appointed appraiser and twice by the State, an appraiser, called as a State witness at trial, valued the tracts at the considerably lower figures of $27,700 and $51,500. The landowners' expert witness valued the property at $64,300 and $129,620, creating a respective range of values from $27,700 to $64,300 and from $51,500 to $129,620 for the consideration of the jury. The jury returned verdicts of $30,116 and $57,790. Although the verdicts were within the ranges presented by the evidence, and although the trial was free from error, the judge ordered a new trial because his conscience was shocked by the low verdicts. The District Court reversed, concluding that the trial judge's judicial conscience had been shocked unjustifiably. This Court granted certiorari because of conflict between the District Court decision and Cloud and quashed the decision below. Although the order for new trial did not recite that the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence, in which case Cloud would have held it the trial court's duty to grant a new trial, it did recite that the judge was "shocked" by the outcome. As a result, this Court felt the trial judge was

". . . conscience-bound to do exactly what he did, namely, grant a new trial. After all the owners' properties were being taken from them for public use and this cannot be done except full compensation is forthcoming under the fundamental safeguard found in both the State and Federal Constitutions, a protection the judge was duty-bound to secure to them." 131 So.2d at 742.

At first glance it would seem that the order for new trial in this case should be able to withstand appellate review since it is predicated on the same basis as the Bennett order for new trial: shock to the judicial conscience. In turn it would seem that the District Court's decision to reverse in this case would conflict with Bennett. However, the two cases are distinguishable for two reasons. First, the issues at the respective trials were vastly dissimilar. In this case the trial court, sitting in a personal injury suit, was not duty-bound to secure the plaintiff's constitutional right to just compensation for the taking of his property as was the trial court in the Bennett eminent domain proceeding. Second, and most crucially from a perspective of appellate duty of review, the respective orders, apart from noting judicial shock, are entirely different. In this case, the order granting new trial offered no explanation of what triggered the trial court's judicial shock at the size of the verdict. On the contrary, the Bennett order offered as an explanation for the trial court's shock at the low verdict a detailed analysis of the evidence before the jury:

"In his order the learned circuit judge, . . . referred to the original appraisals on the bases of which the deposits had been made and on the strength of one of which the sum of $60,000 had been paid to one of the owners, a sum considerably in excess of the amount awarded by the jury. He recalled that upon amendment of the declaration there had been no appreciable change in the figures. In parallel columns he set out the appraisals of petitioners, the testimony of petitioner's and owner's experts, and the verdicts which demonstrated the disparities among the estimates presented by the parties and those accepted by the jury.

Page 434

"Plainly, then, the trial judge felt that he could not condone the condemning authority's making representations as to values, taking owners' properties away and beyond recovery making no effort in the amended declaration to correct any errors...

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