Direct Punitive Liability Against A Corporation

Wrongful Death

In the case of Florida Power & Light Company v. Tricia Dominguez, as PR for the Estate of Justin Dominguez, Case Number 2D18-2363 (Fla. 2d DCA October 25, 2019), Florida’s Second DCA held that direct corporate liability for punitive damages requires willful or wanton conduct by a president or primary owner.

Underlying Facts

Justin Dominguez was tragically electrocuted by a power line when the bamboo stalk that he was climbing on bent over and touched the power line. He was only fifteen years old.

His mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the power company because the power company’s own maintenance and safety standards required removal of bamboo any time that it is growing under or near power lines due to its fast growth rate and difficulty to control. She further claimed that the power company had been warned about the bamboo but still failed or refused to remove it. Bamboo was described as a “critical removal” species that should be removed anytime it is found near power lines rather than just trimmed.

The jury found the power company responsible for the death. Apparently it was difficult or near impossible to notice the power lines through the tall bamboo stalks.

The jury was also asked to award punitive damages under a “direct corporate liability theory” against the power company.

How To Establish Direct Corporate Liability For Punitive Damages In Florida

This required the plaintiff to prove that the company’s conduct was “so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.”

Direct punitive liability against a corporation also requires that “there must be a showing of willful and malicious action on the part of a managing agent of the corporation.”

This “managing agent” must be more than “just a manager or midlevel employee.” The following cases are helpful to understanding just what a “managing agent” is for purposes of punitive damages in Florida:

  • Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. v. Partington, 710 So. 2d 575, 576 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998) (“[A] job foreman is not, as required for imposing direct liability, a managing agent of the company.”)
  • Capital Bank v. MVB, Inc., 644 So. 2d 515, 521 (Fla. 3d DCA 1994) (citing Bankers Multiple Line Ins. Co. v. Farish, 464 So. 2d 530 (Fla.1985)) (holding that one of several bank vice presidents, who was not on the board of directors or the loan committee, did not qualify as a managing agent)
  • Pier 66 Co. v. Poulos, 542 So. 2d 377, 381 (Fla. 4th DCA 1989) (holding that a hotel manager was not a managing agent of the corporation that owned the hotel)
  • Taylor v. Gunter Trucking Co., Inc., 520 So. 2d 624, 625 (Fla. 1st DCA 1988)(a managing agent is an individual like a “president [or] primary owner” who holds a “position with the corporation which might result in his acts being deemed the acts of the corporation.”)

In this particular case, a “regional supervisor” for the power company’s “vegetation management program” was not considered a “managing agent” for purposes of punitive damages. Therefore, the Second DCA reversed a $12 million jury award.

Help From A Florida Wrongful Death Lawyer

If you lost a loved one due to the negligence or carelessness of someone else, you may have a claim for wrongful death under Florida law. A preventable death is often a viable claim for legal responsibility. To find out whether your case is viable, you should contact a Lakeland wrongful death lawyer to schedule a free consultation.

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October 25, 2019