Understanding Florida’s Civil Theft Laws
Theft is a crime. Most people know that. What most people don’t know, is that there can also be a civil suit for theft, and that theft in the civil courts doesn’t always require that a crime be committed. As long as there is an intent to deprive someone else of property, there can be civil theft.
Damages for Civil Theft
One of the benefits of Florida’s civil theft statute is that it allows the victim to recover three times the value of the property or money taken or stolen. That is a very significant penalty, and makes lawsuits for amounts that may be too minimal to be worthwhile, to be well worth taking to court.
Even if you or your business have had a small amount taken, the civil theft statute’s treble (triple) damages scheme, may make it possible to have a viable claim, where you can win a significant amount of damages. The statute also allows the victim, if the lawsuit is successful, to win attorney’s fees from the other side.
Proving Fraud is Required
The problem comes in proving civil theft. It is not enough that property or money was taken. The victimized party must show that the other side took the property with an intent to deceive, steal, or deprive the owner of the money or the property. This means that the victim has to prove the other side’s subjective mindset—no easy thing to prove.
Courts will look to the wrongdoer’s statements and any misrepresentations to see if there is fraud. Simply saying that something will or will not happen (“this car won’t break down”) is not sufficient. However, saying something someone already knows to be false (“this car has never broken down,” when it in fact has), could be construed as fraud.
If there is a contract between the parties, there must be more shown than the fact that one side breached the contract. There must be damages from the theft that are separate and independent of the contract, and which do not naturally relate to, or flow from, the contract.
Penalties for Baseless Lawsuits
As if that isn’t a tough enough burden, there is a penalty for not being able to prove civil theft. If the party suing for civil theft cannot prove that the other side had the intent to steal, and thus is unable to prove civil theft, the court can order the party suing to pay the other side’s attorneys fees.
A party cannot just sue for civil theft. Rather, a demand letter must be sent before the lawsuit, explaining the theft, and providing the other side the opportunity to return the property, or make things right. If the party does, there is no civil theft claim (although there could be claims for other damages, which may be unrelated to the theft).
If your business has a business dispute, or you have a claim against another business, Pike & Lustig, LLP, can help. Call our West Palm Beach business litigation attorneys at 561-291-8298 to get a consultation.