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Florida Fifth DCA rules that trial court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiff in motor vehicle negligence case based on defendant’s refusal to concede negligence

On March 29, 2019, in Sentz v. Tracy, No. 5D18-964, the Florida Fifth DCA reversed a trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing plaintiff in a motor vehicle negligence case.  Prior to trial, the plaintiff submitted requests for admission to the defendant that sought broad concessions as to negligence, causation, and damages.  The defendant denied the requests and then took the position at trial that she had rear-ended the plaintiff because the plaintiff was traveling under the speed limit and the plaintiff’s brake light was not operational.  Quoting from Haas Automation, Inc. v. Fox, 243 So. 3d 1017, 1028 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018), the Fifth DCA noted that there is “an important distinction between requests for admission that would resolve the ultimate issues in the case if admitted, and requests for admission that simply go to establishing a relevant fact in the case.”  The Fifth DCA concluded that the requests in this case went to the ultimate issues in the case rather than relevant facts and that these issues were hotly contested by the parties.  In the court’s view, awarding attorney’s fees under these circumstances would render Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.380(c) a prevailing party fee provision rather than an exception to the rule that the individual parties bear their own fees. See Arena Parking, Inc. v. Lon Worth Crow Ins. Agency, 768 So. 2d 1107, 1113 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000); see also R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Ward, 238 So. 3d 408, 410 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018) (“[R]ule 1.380(c) serves as a vehicle to impose sanctions for unjustified denials, not as a substantive fee-shifting provision.”).