Court Explains Grounds for Punitive Damages in Florida Family Law Cases

In family law disputes, particularly during contentious divorces or custody battles, it’s not uncommon for individuals to resort to various tactics in order to gain the upper hand. One of the most troubling and potentially damaging tactics is the weaponization of domestic violence allegations. If a court finds that a party maliciously alleged that their former spouse engaged in acts of domestic violence, it may impose punitive damages on the party, as discussed in a recent Florida ruling issued in a divorce case.  If you need assistance with a domestic violence issue, it is in your best interest to meet with a Miami domestic violence lawyer to determine your rights.

Case Background

It is alleged that the wife initiated an interlocutory appeal in response to a court order that allowed her husband to assert a punitive damages claim against her. This claim arose from the wife’s alleged malicious prosecution of a domestic violence complaint against her husband. Notably, the wife had submitted the domestic violence petition just a month after filing her petition for the dissolution of their marriage, and both cases were consolidated under the jurisdiction of the family court. Subsequently, the wife withdrew her domestic violence petition after the parties agreed to a no-contact order.

Reportedly, however, two years later, the husband took legal action by filing a complaint for malicious prosecution. In this complaint, he asserted that there existed a complete and utter lack of probable cause for the domestic violence injunction petition and contended that the sole purpose of the petition was to gain an advantage in their divorce proceedings. To substantiate his claims, the husband presented evidence, including testimony from a family friend who recalled the wife boasting about filing the petition. Additionally, he pointed out inconsistencies in her accounts of the alleged domestic violence and cited testimonies from police officers who had not observed any physical injuries on the wife.

It is stated in response to this, the trial court issued an order permitting the husband to pursue punitive damages, reasoning that he had presented sufficient evidence indicating that the wife had acted with legal malice and a wanton disregard for the husband’s rights. The wife then appealed.

Grounds for Punitive Damages in Family Law Cases

However, the Second District Court of Appeal (Second DCA) disagreed with this decision and reversed it. According to section 768.72(1) of the Florida Statutes, a claim for punitive damages necessitates a “reasonable showing” of a basis for such damages. This reasonable basis can be established by proving intentional misconduct or gross negligence, as defined in section 768.72(2) of the Florida Statutes.

The court explained that intentional misconduct is when a person undertakes an act with actual knowledge of the wrongful nature of their conduct and the high likelihood of causing injury or damage to the victim, yet they still intentionally pursue such conduct, resulting in harm. The court found that the  husband had failed to demonstrate that the  wife had “actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct.” Furthermore, it was undisputed that some form of “physical touching” had occurred, undermining the claim of fabricated allegations. The fact that the wife had boasted about the domestic violence was deemed insufficient proof of malice.

Similarly, the court concluded that the  wife’s conduct did not meet the criteria for “gross negligence.” The court cited a prior case that succinctly outlined the basis for punitive damages, emphasizing that such damages are reserved for actions of “culpable conduct” that are so extreme and outrageous that they would outrage an average member of the community. In this case, the court found no evidence of such extreme and outrageous conduct, leading it to reverse the decision to allow punitive damages.

Meet with an Experienced Miami Attorney

Domestic violence allegations should not be made or taken lightly, as they can have serious implications. If you need assistance handling domestic violence allegations, it is wise to meet with an attorney as soon as possible. The experienced Miami family law lawyers of the Law Offices of Sandy T. Fox, P.A. can assess the facts of your case and advise you of your options for seeking a favorable result. You can reach us through our online form or at 800-596-0579 to arrange a conference.