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Florida Supreme Court Reinstates $3.3 Million Verdict against Bank for Falsely Accusing Customer of Being Bank Robber

On June 2, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court reversed an appellate court's ruling which had vacated a $3.3 million verdict in favor of a man who was arrested and injured by a police SWAT team after a bank teller had falsely identified him as a wanted bank robber. The case was sent back to the trial court with instructions to resubmit to the jury a question on which they had given inconsistent verdicts.

At 3:00 p.m. on July 3, 2008, Rudy Vallardes walked into the Williams Island, Florida branch of the Bank of America to cash a $100 check. That same morning, an email had been circulated that advised banks to be on the lookout for a white male bank robber wearing a Miami Heat baseball cap and dark sunglasses. Vallardes, a clearly Hispanic male, entered the Williams Island bank wearing a Miami Heat cap and sunglasses. The teller said she immediately fingered him as the robber, despite being obviously Hispanic. As he approached her window, she activated the silent alarm. Vallardes proceeded to present her with his check transaction and his Florida driver's license, neither of which were the least bit suspicious. Vallardes did nothing more than try to cash his check.

However, the teller still did not cancel the alarm, stalled the transaction, and told her supervisor that "the bank robber is at my window." The bank manager then told Vallardes that they could not cash his check because their computers were down and told him to leave the bank. Although he noticed that other customers were still conducting bank business, Vallardes left anyway. As he exited the bank, the police SWAT team moved in.

Vallardes was thrown to the ground, kicked, and told to give up his weapon, which he did not have. No bank employee informed the police that Vallardes was the wrong man, and allowed them to proceed to handcuff Vallardes. Eventually, the police realized they did have the wrong man, but had already injured Vallardes by that point, and he had to be hospitalized for the head injuries he suffered as a result.

Vallardes sued the Bank of America for negligence, battery, and false imprisonment. Specifically, Vallardes alleged that the bank was liable for "carelessly activating and failing to cancel the silent robbery alarm when it knew or should have known that Plaintiff was not attempting to rob the bank," the complaint read. After trial, the jury found the bank liable for negligence, but not for the battery and false imprisonment claims. Vallardes was awarded $100,000 for medical expenses, $2.5 million for pain and suffering, and $700,000 in punitive damages, for a total award of over $3.3 million.

However, under Florida law, punitive damages are not available on mere negligence claims, and Vallardes asked the court to resubmit the battery and false imprisonment claims to the jury because the verdicts were inconsistent. The bank objected, agreed to the verdict, but later moved to set it aside. That motion was denied and judgment was entered in favor of Vallardes.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the verdict and ordered judgment in favor of the bank, holding that a person who reports criminal activity cannot be held liable under a theory of simple negligence. The case then went to the Florida Supreme Court which overturned the Third Circuit, reinstated the verdict, and remanded to the trial court to resolve the inconsistent verdict.

"The Third Circuit improperly applied the limited qualified immunity privilege to the facts of this case," wrote the state's high court. "We hold that the privilege does not apply to incorrect and wrongful reports made to law enforcement when the conduct rises to the level' of punitive conduct." The court further held that in this case then bank knew or should have known that Vallardes was not the bank robber and that their conduct was likely to cause him harm. "Qualified privilege 'cannot provide immunity to such behavior," the court concluded.

The court then found that the inconsistent verdict presented a problem that could only be resolved with a remand for a new trial on those issues. The court said that a finding of mere negligence cannot support a punitive damage award, and those issues should be resubmitted to a jury. See Vallardes v. Bank of America Corp., No. SC14-1629 (S. Ct. FL 2016).

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Related legal case

Vallardes v. Bank of America Corp.