After sifting through the voluminous record of the trial court, the appellate attorney identifies what he or she thinks are key legal errors, and urges the appellate court to reverse a jury’s decision. However, not every error results in a reversal on appeal. Harmless errors do not result in reversals. The “harmless error” rule articulated in Florida case law and Section 59.041, Florida Statutes, is based on the principle that although a trial judge’s ruling on a particular point was incorrect, it was insignificant in the context of all of the evidence introduced at trial and would not have affected the jury’s decision.
On November 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court in Special v. West Boca Medical Center, ___ So. 3d ___, 39 Fla. L. Weekly S676 (Fla. Nov. 13, 2014), declared a new harmless error rule for civil cases, making it more difficult for a party to assert that an error committed in the trial court was harmless. The Court held that “the test for harmless error requires the beneficiary of the error to prove that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict.” In other words, “the beneficiary of the error must prove that there is no reasonable possibility that the error complained of contributed to the verdict.”
The Court’s decision resolves the conflict among the varying standards adopted by the district courts of appeals for deciding harmless error in civil cases. The most stringent test, used primarily in the Fourth District, asked whether the result would have been different but for the error. A second test, used in the First and Third Districts, asked whether the result may have been different but for the error. The third test, used primarily in the Second District, asked whether it is reasonably probable that the appellant would have obtained a more favorable verdict without the error.
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision was based, in part, on the historical purpose of the harmless error statute, Section 59.041, Florida Statutes – to enhance finality by limiting the granting of new trials and conserve judicial resources by avoiding the waste caused by needless retrials of cases. Based upon the decision, it will be more difficult for trial errors to result in reversals and new trials.