The Supreme Court Cautions District Courts to Be Prudent and Deliberate In Exercising the Power of Certiorari

In Haines City Community Development v. Heggs, 658 So. 2d 523, 525 (Fla. 1995), the court clarified and narrowed the scope of common law certiorari jurisdiction by noting that "a decision made according to the form of the law and the rules prescribed for rendering it, although it may be erroneous in its conclusion as applied to the facts, is not an illegal or irregular act or proceeding remedial by certiorari." Instead, we held that the proper inquiry under certiorari review is limited to whether the circuit court afforded procedural due process and whether it applied the correct law. See Heggs, 658 So. 2d at 528; see also Combs v. State, 436 So. 2d 93, 95 (Fla. 1983) (holding that in considering common law certiorari, district courts of appeal should be primarily concerned with the seriousness of the error, not the mere existence of error, and should exercise certiorari discretion only when there has been a violation of clearly established principles of law resulting in a miscarriage of justice); Martin County v. City of Stuart, 736 So. 2d 1264, 1265 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999) (holding that when a district court of appeal reviews by certiorari the decision of a three-judge panel of the circuit court in its appellate capacity, the district court is limited to determining whether there was a lack of procedural due process or a departure from the essential requirements of law). As further explained by Judge Altenbernd: It is well-established that certiorari should not be used as a vehicle for a second appeal in a typical case tried in county court. Kennington v. Gillman, 284 So. 2d 405 (Fla. 1st DCA 1973). When issuing this writ, district courts are guided by the bookend discussions in Combs v. State, 436 So. 2d 93 (Fla. 1983), and Haines City Community Development v. Heggs, 658 So. 2d 523 (Fla. 1995). In essence, the supreme court has cautioned the district courts to be prudent and deliberate when deciding to exercise this extraordinary power, but not so wary as to deprive litigants and the public of essential justice. Combs and Heggs analyze the district courts' power over a "second appeal" certiorari in terms of discretion. Thus, these cases recognize that the district courts have jurisdictional power to review a circuit court decision in its appellate capacity. The controlling question is whether the discretion given to the district court under the limited standard of review provided by a petition for writ of common law certiorari is sufficient to authorize a remedy for the error committed in this case. Existing case law establishes that the departure from the essential requirements of the law necessary for the issuance of a writ of certiorari is something more than a simple legal error. Both Combs and Heggs suggest that the district court should examine the seriousness of the error and use its discretion to correct an error "only when there has been a violation of a clearly established principle of law resulting in a miscarriage of justice." Heggs, 658 So. 2d at 528 (quoting Combs v. State, 436 So. 2d 93, 95-96 (Fla. 1983)). In this case, the error occurred because the established law provided no controlling principle and the resulting monetary loss for Ms. Stilson, while unfortunate from her perspective, is not sufficient by itself to be a miscarriage of justice. Both the county court and the circuit court were aware of the general law announced in Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Novak, 453 So. 2d 1116 (Fla. 1984). Unfortunately, there is no Florida case squarely discussing an object intentionally thrown at a moving car. Without such controlling precedent, we cannot conclude that either court violated a "clearly established principle of law." At worst, both courts misapplied the correct law. Their error is not a matter of disobedience to the law, but simply a failure to logically extend Novak to reach the correct result under a new set of facts. This case highlights a significant problem within our existing judicial structure. It is difficult for the law to evolve in unreported decisions issued in circuit court appeals. What evolution occurs may take conflicting approaches within the numerous circuits. As a result, there may never be "clearly established principles of law" governing a wide array of county court issues, including PIP issues. There is a great temptation in a case like this one to announce a "miscarriage of justice" simply to provide precedent where precedent is needed. We do not interpret Heggs as giving this court that degree of discretion in a certiorari proceeding. Such an interpretation would invite certiorari review of a large number of the appellate decisions issued by circuit courts. Stilson v. Allstate Ins. Co., 692 So. 2d 979, 982-83 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997).