Marshall v. HQM of Winter Park, LLC, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 1647561 (Fla. 5th DCA Jun 08, 2007)

In Florida a death certificate is part of every probate proceeding.  The fact that these documents are given conclusive effect in uncontested probate proceedings probably explains why parties attempt to use them to the same effect in contested proceedings, and end up getting reversed on appeal if the trial judge goes along with them (see here).

In the linked-to case a death certificate was used to obtain a summary judgment ruling disposing of a wrongful death claim.  The trial court was reversed on appeal based on the following black letter Florida law:

In granting summary judgment, the trial judge apparently gave conclusive effect to the death certificate and disregarded the opinion of Appellants’ expert. This was error. A death certificate is prima facie proof of the “fact, place, date, and time of death as well as the identity of the decedent.” § 731.103(2), Fla. Stat. (2007). It does not constitute prima facie proof of the cause of death, nor does it create conclusive proof of any fact related to the death. As it relates to the cause of death, it simply states the ultimate opinion of the attesting physician. When, as here, a conflicting medical opinion on causation is offered, summary judgment is not appropriate.

Lesson learned?

Death certificates may be necessary to your case, but they are rarely sufficient to get the job done in contested proceedings.  If the circumstances surrounding a decedent’s death are being contested, make sure your client understands that simply pulling out a death certificate containing helpful facts will NOT win the day in court (i.e., client should understand and expect to incur the expense and delay inherent to any case where circumstantial evidence is being contested).

Cardinal rule of all litigation: no surprises! (I’ve ranted on this point before).