Fla. SC won't answer punitive damages question in sexual harassment case

John O'Brien Apr. 5, 2007, 2:00pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Claiming jurisdiction was carelessly granted to do so, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday decided that it would not answer a certified question regarding an employer's liability for punitive damages.

The case involved Erma Dupont, a former cashier at Speedway Superamerica who was awarded $40,000 in punitive damages in her sexual harassment case against the company.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals sought an answer on the question: Does the rule announced in Mercury Motors Express, Inc. v. Smith... under which an employer can be held vicariously liable for punitive damages based upon the willful and wanton conduct of its employee, apply to punitive damage awards under... Florida statutes?

The Court of Appeals believed the question to be one of great public importance.

"After further consideration, this Court concludes that jurisdiction was improvidently granted," the Court ruled. "Accordingly, this review proceeding is dismissed."

Justice Barbara Pariente concurred and authored a more elaborate explanation. She says the punitive damages award in Dupont's case was not based on the Mercury Motors decision.

Instead, she says the jury was given a federal law instruction on the issue of punitive damages, specifically whether Speedway acted "with malice, willfulness or callous disregard of the rights of plaintiff."

"Accordingly, the jury was never instructed on the more relaxed standard of Mercury Motors. On appeal, the Fifth District evaluated whether there was sufficient evidence to support the punitive damages verdict," she wrote.

"The Fifth District reviewed the sufficiency of the evidence under both Mercury Motors and the higher federal standard of willful and wanton behavior. Although the Fifth District found that it was a 'close case,' it ultimately concluded that the evidence was sufficient based on the higher standard of willful and wanton behavior and affirmed the punitive damages award."

Dupont filed her amended complaint against Speedway Superamerica in 1999, alleging that co-worker Joel Coryell's behavior constituted sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment.

Coryell's alleged comments made Dupont feel uncomfortable, so managers at the store fixed the schedule so the two wouldn't work together. On four occasions, the pair's shifts overlapped, and Dupont said Coryell would stand behind her while she counted money.

When Dupont was scheduled to work with Coryell and told that sometimes the schedule couldn't accommodate her request, she voluntarily resigned and filed suit. A trial court awarded her $88,800 -- $88.80 in backpay, $40,000 in compensatory damages and $40,000 in punitive damages.

An appeal to the Fifth District overturned the ruling, deciding there was not enough evidence to support the ruling. An en banc review reversed that, affirming the trial court's decision.

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