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When Does a Trial Court Lose Subject Matter Jurisdiction?

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On August 1, 2012, the Fourth District Court of Appeals issued an opinion (the “Opinion”), in Liberty Ins. Corp. v. Milne, et al., addressing the issue of when a trial Court loses subject matter jurisdiction after entry of a judgment or final decree.  The issue came before the Fourth District on Liberty’s writ of prohibition seeking to bar the trial court from exercising further jurisdiction over a third-party complaint filed against Liberty.  Opinion at *1. 

The underlying action in Liberty involved a negligence action due to a motor vehicle collision.  Prior to the trial court entering a final judgment on behalf of the plaintiff, Liberty was joined as a defendant.  Liberty was joined to the action under F.S. 627.4136 which provides for the nonjoinder of insurers in actions where insurance coverage exists.  Opinion at *1. 

Plaintiff filed a third-party complaint against Liberty after the trial court entered a final judgment against the defendants.  Liberty moved to dismiss the third party complaint, arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Liberty because the pleading was filed after the trial court entered final judgment.  Opinion at *2.

Liberty argued that a trial court loses jurisdiction when the final judgment is rendered and the time to move for rehearing or new trial has passed.  Opinion at *2.  The Fourth District agreed.  According to the Court,  “once the time had run to file a motion for rehearing or new trial, all the trial court had jurisdiction to do was to enforce the judgment or alter or amend it; it did not have jurisdiction over a new claim.”  Opinion at *2.  The Court further recognized that the “rule is firmly established” in Florida that the trial court loses subject matter jurisdiction after a judgment or decree has been entered and the time for filing a petition for rehearing or motion for new trial has either expired or been denied.  Opinion at *3, citing State ex sel. Am. Home Ins. Co. v Sealy, 355 So.2d 822, 824 (Fla. 4th DCA 1978) (further citation omitted).

In granting Liberty’s petition, the Fourth District recognized that at the time the trial court entered final judgment, Liberty had not been made a party to the action except for the “limited purpose of the nonjoinder statute.”  Opinion at *3.  Plaintiff’s filing of the third party complaint could not revive an action that was already concluded.  Any attempt to file a complaint against Liberty, or to serve process, was declared a “nullity” by the Court.  Opinion at *4.