Back in 2018, Faye Crump and her friend went to see a popular movie at an AMC movie theatre in Altamonte Springs, Florida. At some point during the showing of the movie, a gunshot was fired in the parking lot, resulting in theatre employees shouting to “get out” followed by a stampede of moviegoers trying to exit the theatre. During the ensuing flight from the theatre, Crump was trampled and injured. Crump filed suit against AMC asking for compensatory damages. Crump later filed a motion to amend the complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. The trial court denied that motion and Crump appealed the denial. In a decision handed down on March 28, 2024, the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fifth District affirmed the trial court’s denial.

Listen to Paul and Jason discuss this case on the LiveFeedReed podcast

What is Required for Punitive Damages?

For the Plaintiff in this case to be allowed to amend her Complaint to add a claim for punitive damages, she would have had to allege facts upon which punitive damages could be awarded under Florida law. In a personal injury case, compensatory damages are intended to compensate the Plaintiff for injuries suffered because of the defendant’s negligent or wrongful conduct. Punitive damages, however, are intended to punish the defendant. As such, punitive damages are only awarded if the defendant was guilty of “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence.”

Florida law defines intentional misconduct as when the defendant had “actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and the high probability that injury or damage to the claimant would result and, despite that knowledge, intentionally pursued that course of conduct, resulting in injury or damage.” Gross negligence applies if the defendant’s conduct was “so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.”

Crump named AMC as a defendant claiming that AMC failed to properly train the employee whose actions following the gunshot precipitated the stampede. While an employer can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee, punitive damages can only be imposed against an employer if the employee’s conduct qualifies as intentional misconduct or gross negligence and one of the following is true:

  • The employer actively and knowingly participated in the conduct.
  • The employer knowingly condoned, ratified, or consented to the conduct.
  • The employer engaged in conduct that constituted gross negligence and that contributed to the loss, damages, or injury suffered by the claimant.

In this case, Crump’s assertion was that the employee who burst into the theatre and yelled “get out” was grossly negligent and AMC’s failure to properly train the employee also amounted to gross negligence on AMC’s part.

Did the Court Allow Punitive Damages?

The Fifth District Court found that nothing alleged in the proposed amended Complaint rose to the level of gross negligence on the part of the employer. That alone is sufficient to affirm the trial court’s denial of the motion to amend the Complaint. The Court went on to find, however, that while it was contrary to AMC’s workplace policies, the employee bursting into the theatre and yelling for everyone to “get out” did not constitute gross negligence. In short, the court effectively said that neither of the elements required to pursue punitive damages against an employer were present in this case. Therefore, the Plaintiff is not entitled to pursue a claim for punitive damages against AMC.