When a defendant is sued, the defendant will typically assert affirmative defenses (or defenses to the claims asserted by the plaintiff). Just like a plaintiff has the burden of proof to prove its claims against a defendant, the defendant has the burden of proof to prove its affirmative defenses.
The recent opinion in Bongiorno v. Americorp., 40 Fla L. Weekly D760c (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) exemplifies that a defendant that asserts an affirmative defense has the burden of proving that defense. This case was a personal injury negligence case. The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to her negligence, i.e., the affirmative defense of comparative negligence. The reason the defendant argued this is to reduce its damages exposure.
For instance, let’s assume the jury found that the plaintiff’s damages were $100,000 but that the plaintiff was 50% responsible for her damages. This would have the effect of the court reducing the plaintiff’s damages by 50% or, in this hypothetical, $50,000, in the judgment.
Florida’s standard jury instruction dealing with comparative negligence provides:
501.4 COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE, NON-PARTY FAULT AND MULTIPLE DEFENDANTS
In determining the total amount of damages, you should not make any reduction because of the negligence, if any, of (claimant). The court will enter a judgment based on your verdict and, if you find that (claimant) was negligent in any degree, the court in entering judgment will reduce the total amount of damages by the percentage of negligence which you find was caused by (claimant).
[The court will also take into account, in entering judgment against any defendant whom you find to have been negligent, the percentage of that defendant’s negligence compared to the total negligence of all the parties to this action.]*
*Use the bracketed paragraph above only when there is more than one defendant; the reference to “responsibility” in this additional instruction is designed for use in strict liability cases.
However, the point is that even if you wanted to assert comparative negligence as an affirmative defense, the burden would be upon you (the defendant) to prove this defense. The Court in Bongiorno explained:
“Comparative negligence is an affirmative defense; thus, the party asserting the defense bears the burden of proving that the negligence of the other party was a cause of the accident.
The four elements necessary to prove a negligence claim [and, thus, a comparative negligence defense] include: (1) a duty to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a breach of the duty; (3) proximate cause; and (4) damages.“
Bongiorno, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Notably, in Florida, when it comes to negligence claims, a defendant can only be liable for his/her/its pro rata percentage of fault. See Fla. Stat. 768.81(3) (“In a negligence action [or an action based on a theory of negligence], the court shall enter judgment against each party liable on the basis of such party’s percentage of fault and not on the basis of the doctrine of joint and several liability.”). This means that joint and several liability no longer applies in negligence actions; this is why a defendant’s allocated percentage of fault, especially when there are multiple defendants, becomes important. With the affirmative defense of comparative negligence, as mentioned above, the defendant’s pro rata percentage of fault may be reduced based on the pro rata percentage of fault caused by the plaintiff that contributed to the plaintiff’s damages.
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