In some instances, a legal action may be brought forth without a valid basis, leading to potential consequences for the party responsible. When an individual files a lawsuit without proper grounds, the defendant in that case may have the opportunity to pursue a claim for malicious prosecution against the wrongfully suing party. Florida has long recognized and addressed malicious prosecution claims, which require specific elements to be proven. This article will delve into the requirements and intricacies of establishing a claim for malicious prosecution in Florida.
The Elements of a Malicious Prosecution Claim
To successfully assert a malicious prosecution claim, several key elements must be met under Florida law. These elements are as follows:
1. Commencement or Continuation of a Legal Proceeding
The claimant must demonstrate that an original civil or criminal judicial proceeding was initiated or continued by the defendant. This means that a baseless lawsuit, regardless of whether it was initially believed to have merit, can provide a foundation for a malicious prosecution claim. If the plaintiff realizes the frivolity of the litigation during the course of the proceedings but continues to pursue it, this continuation can serve as the basis for the claim.
2. Legal Causation
The claimant must establish that the defendant’s actions directly caused the initiation or continuation of the original lawsuit. Only the party wrongfully sued can assert a claim for malicious prosecution, as they were the defendant in the initial proceeding.
3. Favorable Termination of the Prior Lawsuit
For a malicious prosecution claim to proceed, the underlying frivolous lawsuit must have terminated in favor of the party now alleging malicious prosecution. In other words, the claimant must have prevailed in the original legal action.
4. Absence of Probable Cause
Probable cause for bringing the underlying lawsuit must be lacking. In Burns v. GCC Beverages, Inc., the Florida Supreme Court defined probable cause as the existence of reasonable grounds supported by substantial circumstances, sufficient to convince a cautious individual of the accused person’s guilt in the charged offense. Although the context of the case dealt with criminal proceedings, this definition provides insight into the probable cause aspect of a malicious prosecution claim involving civil cases.
5. Presence of Malice
Malice must be present to support a claim for malicious prosecution. However, direct proof of malice is not required. Malice can be inferred or implied from the absence of probable cause. In Adams v. Whitfield, the Florida Supreme Court clarified that actual malice is unnecessary, as legal malice can be inferred solely from the lack of probable cause.
The claimant must demonstrate that they have suffered damages as a result of the malicious prosecution. A compensatory damages award by a jury is sufficient evidence of malice, justifying the potential for an award of punitive damages. However, it is worth noting that the absence of probable cause may not always warrant punitive damages. The court in Adams v. Whitfield determined that punitive damages were appropriate due to the defendant’s “wanton disregard for the rights” of the plaintiff.
In summary, bringing a successful claim for malicious prosecution in Florida requires meeting specific elements: the initiation or continuation of a legal proceeding, its causation by the defendant, a favorable termination of the original lawsuit, the absence of probable cause, the presence of malice inferred from the lack of probable cause, and the demonstration of damages. By meeting these requirements, individuals wrongfully subjected to baseless lawsuits can seek legal recourse and potentially hold the responsible party accountable for their actions.