The Supreme Court of Florida recently clarified its pre-existing harmless error threshold for civil cases in Special v. West Boca Medical Center, No. SC11-2511, (Fla. 2014) This was helpful since it is known that a common argument on appeal following a trial is whether evidence was mistakenly or incorrectly presented to the jury. Although inappropriate evidence can affect a jury’s determination, appeals courts are hesitant to allow a new trial in every case that involves an evidentiary ruling with which it disagrees. In West Boca, the state’s highest court reversed a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision upholding a verdict in favor of a doctor in a medical malpractice suit over the 2003 death of 38-year-old Susan Special during a caesarian delivery. The Supreme Court also ordered a new trial in the case after determining that the trial court committed harmful error when it excluded the cross-examination of a defense expert and when it excluded evidence related to two circumstances of alleged witness tampering. The Fourth District previously applied a “more likely than not” standard for harmless error and has been forced to revise several of its decisions in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Supreme Court took the “more likely than not” standard further by determining that the beneficiary of the error has to prove that there is “no reasonable possibility” that the error contributed to the verdict. The standard is the same set for criminal trials in the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in State v. DiGuilio, which involved a conviction of conspiracy to traffic in cocaine. Prior to the Court’s ruling in West Boca, Florida courts did not consistently interpret the “resulted in a miscarriage of justice” language. Id. Courts had not adopted a uniform test for harmless error, and over time, had applied a variety of approaches to the issue.
Applying this test to the facts in Special, the Florida Supreme Court held that the exclusion of evidence that occurred failed to satisfy the harmless error test.
By placing the burden on the beneficiary of the error to show “no reasonable possibility” that the error contributed to the ruling, the standard adopted in West Boca makes it uniformly harder to demonstrate harmless error as grounds for upholding a decision. The standard thus favors appellants seeking review of cases with demonstrable error in the proceedings.