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Acosta v. Naples Community Hospital, Inc.

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

September 25, 2019

CARMEN DE ACOSTA, as personal representative of the Estate of John de Acosta, deceased, Appellant,
v.
NAPLES COMMUNITY HOSPITAL, INC. d/b/a NAPLES COMMUNITY HOSPITAL, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Collier County; Lauren L. Brodie, Judge.

          Douglas F. Eaton of Eaton & Wolk, PL, Miami, for Appellant.

          Michael R. D'Lugo of Wicker Smith O'Hara McCoy & Ford, P.A., Orlando, for Appellee.

          MORRIS, Judge.

         Carmen de Acosta, as personal representative of the estate of John de Acosta, appeals a final judgment entered in favor of Naples Community Hospital (NCH) in Mrs. de Acosta's action for medical malpractice and loss of consortium. Because we conclude that Mrs. de Acosta substantially complied with the requirement for moving for a trial de novo pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.820(h) and that NCH's conduct in the matter operated as a waiver of strict compliance with the rule, we reverse the final judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         The action below was originally filed in both Mr. and Mrs. de Acosta's names in their individual capacities. However, during the pendency of the proceedings, Mr. de Acosta died and the complaint was amended to list Mrs. de Acosta in her capacity as representative of Mr. de Acosta's estate. The matter was initially set for trial in February 2018, but in the interim, the trial court referred the case to nonbinding arbitration. A nonbinding arbitration award was entered in favor of NCH on December 4, 2017. Nine days later, on December 13, 2017, Mrs. de Acosta filed her statement of facts, identification of disputed facts, and identification of issues of law. NCH responded, filing its own statement of facts and identification of issues of law on December 15, 2017. On January 2, 2018, NCH filed a "Notice of Referral of Non-Binding [sic] Arbitration Decision, " wherein it argued that no party had moved for a trial de novo within the time required by section 44.103(5), Florida Statutes (2017), and rule 1.820(h). On that same day, Mrs. de Acosta filed a motion for trial de novo and the trial court entered an order directing the clerk of court to unseal the arbitration award. Mrs. de Acosta filed an objection to the order directing the clerk to unseal the arbitration award. However, on January 9, 2018, the trial court, sua sponte, entered final judgment in favor of NCH, consistent with the arbitration award. In doing so, the trial court noted that neither party had moved for trial de novo within the time required under rule 1.820(h).

          ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Mrs. de Acosta argues that because an initial trial date had already been set, moving for trial de novo was superfluous. She also argues that she indicated her rejection of the arbitration award by filing her statement of facts and disputed issues and that NCH waived its right to challenge her failure to file a formal motion for trial de novo when it responded by filing its own statements of facts and disputed issues.

         We agree with Mrs. de Acosta that under the circumstances of this case, rule 1.820(h) should not be strictly applied.[1] Rule 1.820(h) provides in relevant part that "[i]f a motion for trial is not made within 20 days of service on the parties of [a nonbinding arbitration] decision, the decision shall be referred to the presiding judge, who shall enter such orders and judgments as may be required to carry out the terms of the decision as provided by section 44.103(5)." Section 44.103(5), in turn, provides in relevant part that "[a]n arbitration decision shall be final if a request for a trial de novo is not filed within the time provided by rules promulgated by the [s]upreme [c]ourt."

         However, in Nicholson-Kenny Capital Management, Inc. v. Steinberg, 932 So.2d 321 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006), the Fourth District applied the doctrine of waiver to its analysis of rule 1.820(h), on facts similar to ours, where notice of trial had already been served prior to arbitration proceedings and where, after an arbitration decision had been rendered, both parties had filed documents or engaged in other conduct suggesting that they were proceeding to an already set trial date. In doing so, the court rejected the argument that a pleading styled "motion for trial" was required to be filed in a case where a notice for trial had already been served and where a trial had already been set on the docket. Id. at 324. The court noted that rule 1.820(h) did not even require that a pleading be styled "motion for trial." Instead, the court interpreted the rule to "require[] some notice to the opposing party that its adversary is rejecting an arbitration award and renewing its demand for trial." Id.

         In Steinberg, the appellant's attorney filed a notice setting a pretrial conference a mere four days after the arbitration decision was rendered, and in it, appellant "clearly indicated a desire to proceed to trial in the case." Id. Thereafter, both attorneys attended a calendar call, the appellant requested a trial date in open court in accordance with the order setting trial, and the attorneys for both parties met to work out a joint pretrial statement. Id. The court explained that "[t]here is no question . . . that [appellant] requested a trial within twenty days of the arbitrator's decision" and that "there is more than a 'hint' of that fact in the filings with the court." Id. The court's decision to reverse and remand the final judgment was also predicated on the fact that despite having multiple opportunities to object to proceeding to trial due to the appellant's failure to formally move for a trial, the appellee never objected and instead participated in proceedings moving the case along. Id. at 324-25.

         The rationale used by the court in Steinberg applies equally here. While Mrs. de Acosta did not technically comply with rule 1.820(h) by filing a formal motion for trial, she substantially complied with it by filing-a mere nine days after the arbitrator's decision was rendered-her statement of facts, identification of disputed facts, and identification of issue of law. In doing so, she indicated her rejection of the arbitrator's decision by summarily stating that "[t]he facts are in dispute regarding liability, causation, and damages" and by noting that the parties' motion in limine was an issue of law to be decided by the court. Further, as in Steinberg, the trial had already been set on the docket in this case. Thus, ...


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