Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal ruled that counsel for Continental Motors Inc. have dodged Miami-Dade Circuit Court-imposed sanctions.
However, Ricardo M. Martinez-Cid and Lea P. Bucciero, partners at Podhurst Orseck in Miami who represented widow Carly Johnson, said opposing counsel’s client is still on the hook for attorney fees and a multimillion-dollar lower court judgment.
“This decision is an absolute victory, upholding a $5 million judgment,” Martinez-Cid said. “Although it does overturn a $25,0000 sanction, that did not condone the conduct, or say that the conduct was not sanctionable, but only found that the judge had not made a finding that on the record would support it.”
According to court documents, the dispute dated back seven years, when Johnson sued Continental Motors and several other aviation entities in the circuit court for negligence in the fatal aircraft crash of her husband, Timothy.
The litigation, over which Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Peter R. Lopez presided, resulted in an award of damages for Johnson’s loss of companionship, mental pain and suffering, and the loss of her husband’s prospective net accumulations to the estate, according to court documents.
Now, as a result of the state appellate ruling, Martinez-Cid said he will ask the circuit court to approve a six- or seven-figure attorney fee award in an upcoming hearing.
Douglas E. Winter, counsel at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Washington, D.C., who was among the attorneys who represented Continental Motors in the litigation, declined to comment.
Martinez-Cid said the controversy over sanctions stemmed from how zealously Continental Motors fought the case in both the circuit court and the Third DCA to avoid liability from similar pending litigation.
“We had shown the court during a full hearing that Continental Motors and its counsel had engaged in inappropriate conduct in cases all over the country,” Martinez-Cid said. “They have been sanctioned previously by other courts based upon a willful disregard of the court’s orders.”
Martinez-Cid pointed to counsel for Continental Motors withholding tens of thousands of documents until just days before the trial.
The Podhurst Orseck attorney said the sanction order resulted from the judge instructing opposing counsel to “turn over the documents by Friday or I would have to sanction you.” Continental Motor’s counsel continued to ignore the court’s directive, consistent with how the company acted in related ongoing litigation across the country.
But Third DCA Judges Norma S. Lindsey, Thomas Logue and Fleur J. Lobree reversed the sanction order.
“The assessment of a fine for failure to comply with an order compelling discovery ‘must be predicated upon a finding of contempt,’” the judges ruled. “Because the sanctions order in this case explicitly finds that the attorneys’ failure to comply ‘was not willful, deliberate and contumacious,’ we reverse the portion of the order imposing the fine.”
Still, Martinez-Cid said the ruling would have significant implications for at least six other cases against Continental Motors.
“There have been a number of cases around the country with accidents and incidents involving a defect in its engines,” Martinez-Cid said. “We are the first case to have ever gone to trial on that and that is one of the reasons why they fought so tenaciously to avoid the trial altogether.”
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