Broward Judge’s Biased Remarks Disqualify Him from Wrongful Death Case, Appeals Court Rules
Should a trial judge be disqualified from presiding over a personal injury case if he expresses an opinion on a relevant legal issue during a pretrial hearing? On April 8, a Florida appeals court answered that question in ruling that a Broward County judge demonstrated bias in a wrongful death case brought against the Publix supermarket chain and should be removed from hearing the case (Publix Super Markets, Inc., et al. v. M. Olivares, No. 4D19-2202, Fla. App. Ct., 4th Dist.).
Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recommended that Broward Circuit Judge William W. Haury Jr. be disqualified from the wrongful-death lawsuit over comments he made about Publix Super Markets’ policy on cell phone use for its delivery drivers. The suit resulted from a fatal collision involving a Publix tractor trailer truck whose driver was using his cell phone with a hands-free device at the time of the crash.
The Fourth District reversed its own prior decision on the issue in a rehearing granted at the request of Publix. Publix and its co-defendant, Randolph Sapp, had brought a petition for writ of prohibition to disqualify the trial judge from hearing the suit.
Publix claimed in the petition that Judge Haury’s comments, made at a hearing on the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, revealed him to be biased against its argument that a driver’s hands-free use of a cell phone does not warrant punitive damages because Florida law doesn’t prohibit cell phone use while driving. (Punitive damages are generally monetary damages imposed by a court apart from compensatory damages, and are designed to sanction and deter exceptionally reckless or egregious behavior.)
“[Judge Haury] indeed made multiple comments showing his predisposition that cell phone use while driving, even if legal, is dangerous and should not be allowed,” the Fourth District Court wrote in its opinion, concluding that Publix’s motion to disqualify him should be granted on that basis. “The judge’s comments tended to show a disdain not only for Publix’s legal position but for the company’s lack of a policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving. Thus the judge exhibited a bias against Publix, and the judge should have disqualified himself.” The defendant could therefore reasonably fear that it would not receive a fair trial from Haury, the court said.
However, one judge on the appellate court’s three-judge panel, Judge Warner, dissented from the majority opinion based on the Fourth District’s previous holding that a judge is not necessarily disqualified because he has expressed an opinion as to a legal question in a case.
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