LCA Fellow Hala Sandridge Notches Three Major Appellate Wins for USF, WCI/Lennar and Lee Health

In a year of so much uncertainty and challenges, Hala Sandridge, shareholder, co-head of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s Tampa office, chair of the firm’s Appellate Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Board of Directors, has had an extraordinary trio of wins protecting her clients.

Bd. of Trs. of the Univ. of S. Fla. v. Carter, 45 Fla. L. Weekly d1224 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020)

University of South Florida (USF) retained Hala Sandridge in February 2018 to appeal a $109 million medical malpractice verdict imposed by a Florida state court jury. The cases stemmed from a Plaintiff who following outpatient surgery, sustained a pierced organ, which caused an untimely diagnosed infection and resulted in amputations of all four limbs. The case was heard by two juries who could not reach a verdict after hearing expert evidence that doctors not employed by USF caused the untimely diagnosis, resulting in mistrials. During the third trial, Plaintiff’s counsel convinced the judge to exclude the exculpatory evidence, preventing USF from arguing its doctor didn’t cause Plaintiff’s injuries and the jury awarded Plaintiff $109 million in damages. Following that verdict, USF appealed the case in the Second District Court of Appeal. Knowing that Plaintiff’s counsel’s strategy would focus on sympathy for the victim, Sandridge focused the appellate case on pure legal issues pertaining to exculpatory evidence admitted into evidence in two prior trials, but excluded in the third retrial. This evidence – derived from Plaintiff’s expert – effectively proved USF’s doctor did not cause Plaintiff’s injuries, which were caused by non-USF physicians that did not timely diagnosis Plaintiff’s infection.  Following a briefing in September 2019 and oral argument in November 2019, the appellate court reversed the judgment on May 22, 2020, and ordered a new trial, agreeing USF was deprived of due process when the trial court excluded exculpatory evidence. The opinion further held the court incorrectly prevented the jury from allocating fault to negligent non-parties, a hot topic in Florida medical malpractice cases “The trial court's erroneous conclusion that USF was the sole and the initial tortfeasor in this case prevented USF from presenting its causation defense to the jury. It also prevented USF from asking the jury to apportion damages among all responsible parties if the jury found USF liable. These errors deprived USF of a fair trial and require that we reverse the judgment against it and remand for yet another trial.”

On November 10, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court denied discretionary review.

WCI Communities, LLC et al v. City of Bonita Springs, Twentieth Judicial Circuit Court, Lee County Florida, Case No.: 17-CA-3966

WCI, part of nationwide homebuilder Lennar, retained Hala Sandridge to represent the company in a dispute with the City of Bonita Springs over an agreement to build four high-rise residential towers on Raptor Bay Golf Club. The case arose after WCI signed an annexation agreement with the City and the City agreed to rezone WCI’s property to permit the four 20-story towers if WCI permitted the City to annex WCI’s 55-acres. WCI kept to its agreement, but the City refused to grant the rezoning. As a result of the City’s actions, Hala Sandridge filed a multi-count complaint for breach of the agreement. The City claimed the agreement constituted illegal contract zoning, void under public policy. Using the implicit rationale of a fee award in a related appeal between the parties, Sandridge argued an exception to illegal contract zoning for annexation agreements. During court-ordered arbitration in October 2019, the arbitrator enforced the agreement, awarding WCI $6.3 million in damages, attorney’s fees and costs and ordered the City to grant the rezoning, increasing the property value by $40 million. The trial court confirmed the arbitration award and entered judgment on April 9, 2020. The City did not appeal. Sandridge also obtained a $955,316 attorney’s fee and costs award against the City.

Lee Mem'l Health Sys. v. Hilderbrand, 45 Fla. L. Weekly d2231 (Fla. 2d DCA September 25, 2020)

Two Plaintiffs, former patients of Lee Memorial Health System, filed the underlying class action complaint against the hospital alleging unjust enrichment based on the collection of amounts due for medical bills. Their challenge was not to the amounts billed or their obligation to pay the bills, but instead asserted that they were entitled to a refund because Lee Health collected the amounts under a claim of lien statute that was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. The class sued for return of all payments received through this unconstitutional process, which would have cost the hospital over $55 million. Lee Health filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that sovereign immunity barred the class claims. Under Florida law, sovereign immunity bars purely economic loss claims unless supported by the express terms of a written contract. The trial court denied the motion, effectively finding a blanket exception to this sovereign immunity defense for unjust enrichment claims. Sandridge successfully argued that the trial court misapplied the exception to sovereign immunity for unjust enrichment claims.  The appellate court reversed and remanded for the trial court to dismiss the class action in its entirety.

“In sum, the trial court erred in ruling that Lee Health's imposition of a hospital claim of lien pursuant to the Lien Law was an illegal extraction to which sovereign immunity does not apply. Lee Health did not refuse to follow a direct legislative mandate or ignore an established law prohibiting the very tax or fee assessed. Instead, Lee Health used what was then a valid law to file a hospital claim of lien to collect amounts undisputedly owed. Based on the nature of Hilderbrand and Whelpley's claims, there is no basis for the conclusion that sovereign immunity was waived. Accordingly, we reverse the order denying Lee Health's motion to dismiss and remand for dismissal of this action.”


Hala Sandridge, shareholder at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, is Board Certified in Appellate Practice, member of the firm’s Board of Directors, chair of the firm's Appellate Practice Group, and co-head of the firm’s Tampa office. She focuses on all facets of civil appeals and has directly handled hundreds of appeals in both state and federal appellate courts. With 35 years of appellate experience, Hala has produced some of Florida’s most significant appellate decisions, including cases certified by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to the Florida Supreme Court and in the United States Supreme Court. She routinely serves as appellate counsel against multi-million dollar jury verdicts with weighty legal issues. A sought-after lecturer, Hala enjoys an exceptional reputation for her first-rate advocacy skills. Throughout her career, she has received numerous accolades and awards celebrating her legal achievements and community involvement, including being named a 2019 Business Woman of the Year by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, recognized in The Best Lawyers in America® in the Appellate Practice category since 2008 and being named to the Legal Elite Hall of Fame list in 2020 by Florida Trend magazine. Additionally, Hala has spent countless hours providing free appellate legal services to low-income populations and has championed their cause through her participation in local and statewide legal aid organizations.