Florida Supreme Court Rules in 2 Sovereign Immunity Cases

By Bill Kaczor | November 19, 2012

The Florida Supreme Court last week put off a decision on whether Citizens Property Insurance Corp. can use its status as a state-backed entity to avoid lawsuits accusing it of bad faith in responding to claims.

The justices, though, ruled in favor of public employees in another sovereign immunity case.

The high court decided in a 5-2 opinion that Citizens prematurely appealed a trial judge’s denial of its immunity claim before getting a final judgment in a Pensacola area case.

Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority that the ruling applies only to bad faith lawsuits against Citizens. The justices declined to decide whether it should apply in other sovereign immunity cases involving governmental entities.

In the second case, though, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled public employees don’t have wait until lawsuits are resolved to appeal court rulings that deny their claims of individual immunity.

Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine holding governments cannot be sued. Florida has partially waived immunity in certain cases.

The Citizens ruling came in a lawsuit by a condominium association that accused the insurer of bad faith by failing to settle property damage claims stemming from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. That suit was filed after a court ordered Citizens to pay the San Perdido Association’s claim.

A trial judge rejected Citizens claim of immunity from bad faith lawsuits. The 1st District Court of Appeal then ruled the insurer could not appeal that decision until there’s a final judgment in the lawsuit.

The high court agreed with the appellate court, but Pariente wrote there’s “no need to expand the class of non-final orders to include this narrow situation” as the appellate court suggested in certifying the issue as a question of great public importance. She noted that once Citizens’ bad faith immunity claim is resolved that question will not come up again at least as it applies to the insurer.

The district court separately ruled that Jacksonville transit driver Andreas Keck had to similarly wait until a lawsuit accusing him of hitting and injuring a pedestrian is resolved before appealing a trial judge’s ruling that also denied his sovereign immunity claim. The pedestrian, Ashleigh Eminisor, also sued the Jacksonville Transit Authority and a contractor, Jax Transit Management Corp.

In quashing the appellate decision, the justices noted state law provides individual immunity for public officials and employees for actions while on the job if certain conditions are met. The high court said individual immunity rulings based solely on legal rather than factual issues can be immediately appealed.

To do otherwise would make the law’s protection “essentially meaningless for the individual defendant,” the justices wrote in their unsigned opinion.

The law grants individual immunity as long as an employee or official did not act in bad faith, with malicious purpose or with wanton and willful disregard.

The justices acknowledged their decision will require a change in court rules. They asked a Florida Bar committee to submit a proposed amendment.

The high court then ruled that Keck qualified for immunity although he was not directly employed by the transit authority, which is a governmental entity, but through the private management company. The justices said that arrangement is covered by a provision in the law granting immunity to “corporations primarily acting as instrumentalities” of the state.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston concurred with Justice Charles Canady’s dissent in the Citizens case. Canady wrote that in his opinion Citizens was immune from bad faith lawsuits and the denial of such claims by trial judges should immediately be reviewed. The majority’s decision “does not afford Citizens the full benefit of its statutory immunity,” Canady wrote.

 

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