Once upon a time in Florida a person injured by a transitory substance on the floor of a chain store like a Publix, Walmart, or Whole Foods could rely on similar incidents in the chain's other stores to prove what caused their own accident. The theory was that the similar events tended to show a failure by the entity to remedy a known problem. According to Florida's Third District Court of Appeals, this evidence is no longer relevant. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. v. Santos, So.3d , 38 FLW D1656 (Fla. 3rd DCA 7-31-2013).
Recently in Premises Liability Category
A landowner owes invitees two independent duties: "(1) to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition, and (2) to give warning of concealed perils." Cruz-Haymer v. Festival Food Market, Inc. So.3d , 38 FLW D1581 (Fla. 4th DCA 7-24-2010 and Burton v. MDC PGA Plaza Corp., 78 So. 3d 732, 734 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).
Landowners like to believe that where a dangerous condition is open and obvious, the victim should not be able to maintain a lawsuit for negligence. The idea relies on the proposition that "[t]he obvious danger doctrine provides that an owner or possessor of land is not liable for injuries to an invitee caused by a dangerous condition on the premises when the danger is known or obvious to the injured party ...." Aaron v. Palatka Mall, L.L.C., 908 So. 2d 574, 576-77 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005) (citing Ashcroft v. Calder Race Course, Inc., 492 So. 2d 1309 (Fla. 1986)).
All premises owners owe a duty to their invitees to exercise reasonable care to maintain their premises in a safe condition. See, e.g., Everett v. Restaurant & Catering Corp., 738 So.2d 1015, 1016 (Fla. 2d DCA 1999). Despite this general proposition, when a person slips and falls on a transitory foreign substance, the rule has developed that the injured person must prove that the premises owner had actual knowledge or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition "in that the condition existed for such a length of time that in the exercise of ordinary care, the premises owner should have known of it and taken action to remedy it." Colon v. Outback Steakhouse of Florida, Inc., 721 So.2d 769, 771 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998). Constructive knowledge may be established by circumstantial evidence showing that: (1) "the dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that in the exercise of ordinary care, the premises owner should have known of the condition;" or (2) "the condition occurred with regularity and was therefore foreseeable." Brooks v. Phillip Watts Enter., Inc., 560 So.2d 339, 341 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990). In the latter category, evidence of recurring or ongoing problems that could have resulted from operational negligence or negligent maintenance becomes relevant to the issue of foreseeability of a dangerous condition. See generally Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Reggie, 714 So.2d 601, 603 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998); Nance v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc., 436 So.2d 1075, 1076 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983).The court was reviewing a case where the Plaintiff (Owens) slipped on a banana peel inside a Publix supermarket. Arguing that Owens failed to present any evidence that it had actual or constructive knowledge that the banana piece was on the floor, Publix moved for a directed verdict. Finding that the evidence of the condition of the banana was insufficient to establish a basis for Publix's liability, the trial court directed a verdict and entered final judgment for Publix.
From its analysis of the case before it and a handful of other Florida cases, the court concluded that "an injured person's ability to establish constructive notice is often dependent on the fortuitous circumstance of the observed condition of the substance." Finding this unacceptable, the court changed the law in premises liability cases involving transitory foreign substances by shifting the burden to the premises owner or operator to establish by the greater weight of evidence that it exercised reasonable care in the maintenance of the premises, "eliminating the specific requirement that the customer establish that the store had constructive knowledge" of the existence of the transitory foreign substance. See Kenz v. Miami-Dade County, at 13, n. 1 (Fla. App. 2013). In enacting section 768.0710, the Florida Legislature returned to the claimant the burden of proving that the premises owner or operator negligently failed to exercise reasonable care, but codified that part of Owens that a claimant was not required to prove actual or constructive notice of the transitory foreign substance.
Every case is different. From accident to injuries, no two cases are ever exactly alike. That said, certain common elements do run through every case. From time to time I will be posting about some of the cases our firm has resolved. The common elements should become apparent in these blogs.
This first example involves a 2011 premises liability accident. Our client slipped in wet paint as she was descending a stairway after work. The property owner had hired an unlicensed and inexperienced recent Cuban immigrant to improve the appearance of the premises for a December holiday party. The painter failed to place warnings signs around the stairwell. It was night time and the outside stairwell was poorly lit. The accident happened in the blink of an eye. There was nothing our client could do to prevent the fall.
Our client, who was wearing flat-soled shoes, landed squarely on her rear-end. She felt immediate pain. Grey paint stained her pants and blouse. She called a co-worker, who assisted her in receiving medical care at a clinic located in her building. Within days she was receiving medical care under the workers' compensation system from doctors hand-picked by the WC insurance carrier.
Because the building owner was not her employer, she was free to pursue a premises liability case against the owner. (See this blog on the law of non-delegable duty and Florida Statute 440.11, Florida's workers' compensation immunity statute.) However, she was unaware of this right, and the workers' compensation attorney she hired did not consider the option. Within months, our client became disenchanted with her workers' compensation attorney and came to our law firm for a consultation.
Our law firm handles workers' compensation and premises liability cases. We quickly recognized that she also had a viable personal injury case. We agreed to handle both cases. This was seven months after the accident.
Our first course of business was to request a slew of records, including medical and employment documents from the workers' compensation insurance carrier. This was quicker, easier, and cheaper than requesting each set of records individually from the various entities. Within thirty days we had the records and were able to review them to get a clearer picture of the cases.
Among other things, we learned that she had undergone a 3-level spine fusion surgery in early 2012. We also learned that, in 2007, she had another, albeit less intrusive, back surgery. The prior surgery turned out to play a prominent role in the premises liability case.
In Umile v. Volpe, So.3d , 38 FLW D410, Florida's 4th District Court of Appeals held that a homeowner may be liable for injuries suffered by an independent contractor hired to perform work in his home.
The holding might appear to clash with this statement of Florida law:
"As a general rule, one who hires an independent contractor is not liable for injuries sustained by that contractor's employees in performing their work." Johnson v. Boca Raton Cmty. Hosp., Inc., 985 So. 2d 593, 595 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008).It doesn't clash with Florida law.
Business establishments owe patrons the duty of ordinary and reasonable care with respect to their safety. See Economy Cash & Carry Cleaners, Inc. v. Gitlin, 1 So.2d 191 (Fla. 1941), and our blog, Status Determines Duty in Florida Premises Liability Cases. To meet this duty with regard to chairs made available to patrons, the establishment must select bullet-proof, industrial grade chairs able to withstand heavy use by heavy people, or have an effective inspection and maintenance procedure in place. See, Fontana v. Wilson World Maingate Condominium, 717 So.2d 199 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998) (The court decided that the jury could have found that the owner's ostrich like approach to the safety of its premises did not meet its obligations to its invitees.)
Florida Personal Injury Litigation: Avoid Being Tricked by Defendants -- Obtain Accident Videotape Footage
While personal injury litigation in Florida courts is not supposed to be a game of "gotcha," or trial by ambush, Surf Drugs, Inc. v. Vermette, 236 So.108, 111 Fla.1970," unless attorneys pay careful attention, it can happen in their cases. One of the ripest areas for this gamesmanship to occur is in the use of accident videotape.
Premise liability defendants often have videotape of the accident. Rarely is it produced presuit, even when doing so might head off a lawsuit. Proof that tried and true policies aren't always the best. Even during suit, defendants resist turning over the tape. In the hope of catching Plaintiffs giving testimony inconsistent with the events captured on tape, even if the inconsistencies are based on a lack of clear memory or a lack of knowledge, rather than untruthfulness, they want to question plaintiffs before producing the accident footage.
Key Issue in Florida Premises Liability Law -- Obtaining Video Surveillance (or Getting a Spoilation Jury Instruction)
The key to resolving premises liability claims fairly to all concerned -- the injured person and the property owner -- is by determining fully what happened.
Frequently, the information has been captured by the videotape camera(s).
Since the videotape is always in the hands of the target defendant, shouldn't it always be made available to the plaintiff? The answer is, It depends.
In Osmulski v. Oldsmar Fine Wine, Inc., So.3d , 37 FLW D1578 (Fla. 2nd DCA 6-20-2012), the appellate court ruled that the defendant was not obligated to preserve the videotape of the accident without a request from the plaintiff. It ruled this way even though the defendant knew immediately of the accident and it was reasonably foreseeable the plaintiff would bring a claim to be compensated for her serious wrist injury (which required two surgeries and needed at least one more). By the time the request was made, after pre-suit negotiations had failed, the videotape had been deleted.
By failing to comply with statutory (and regulatory) (deJesus v. Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, 281 So.2d 198 (Fla.1973)), industry (Seaboard Coast Line R. Co. v. Clark, 491 So.2d 1196 (Fla. 4th DCA 1986), and company safety standards (Steinberg v. Lomenick, 531 So.2d 199 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988), rev. denied, 539 So.2d 476 (Fla.1988) and Mayo v. Publix Super Markets, Inc., 686 So.2d 801 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997)), financial institutions can be held accountable in civil damages to those whose injuries and death -- decedent's survivors are compensated -- were proximately caused by crimes associated with the use of ATMs and night cash depositories.
Statutes & Regulations
Florida Statutes 655.960-655.965 contain some safety standards, but are limited in impact by 655.961, which provides: "A violation of the provisions of ss. 655.960-655.965 or any regulation made pursuant thereto does not constitute negligence per se." Electronic Funds Transfer Act (Regulation E) and the Bank Protection Act (Regulation P) (12 CFR Section 216.1) are federal laws dealing primarily with matters related to the security of the ATMs themselves and to fraudulent transactions, rather than to ATM users' safety.
- Adequate lighting at and around ATMs. The typical minimum standards, including some mandated by law, are 10 foot-candles within five feet of the ATM, and two foot-candles 50 to 60 feet away from the ATM, measured at three feet above ground (Ellis 1996; CUNA Service Group 1999; Illinois Office of Banks and Real Estate 1999). Because these standards can leave gaps in coverage due to factors such as shadows, light-source direction, a qualified lighting designer should plan ATM lighting.
- Landscape and design for good visibility. Use slow growing shrubbery and plants and trim often. Objects that obstruct views, such as dumpsters, should be removed. Hidden alcoves should not be used.
- Install mirrors on ATM and in surrounding areas.
- Install ATMs where there is natural surveillance. In places with a lot of routine vehicle and foot traffic. Experts recommend visibility from three sides.
- Install ATMs in police stations.
- Relocate, close or limit hours of operation in high risk locations.
Comparative Fault -- see Florida Statute 768.81 --and the Open & Obvious Doctrine are legal concepts that play a role in many premises liability cases.
Under the principle of Comparative Fault, the jury is asked to apportion fault among the parties to a lawsuit, plaintiff and defendant(s), and others who may not even be parties to the lawsuit. The jury must also place a monetary value on the damage sustained by the plaintiff. These two findings make up what is known as the [jury's] verdict. Interestingly, a jury verdict is not the same thing as a final judgment, issued by judges, and the final numbers between the two can be significantly different.
Here is a rudimentary example to demonstrate the interplay between verdicts and judgments, and illustrate the principal of comparative fault: Mr. Jones, while visiting a friend's condominium complex, trips on a large crack in a poorly lit underground parking lot while walking into the building. He falls hard to the ground, landing on his chin and head, sustaining a severe laceration and a concussion. Fire Rescue is summoned and transports Mr. Jones to the hospital. The underground lot is owned by a condominium association that has hired a management company to maintain the premises. It is learned that the large crack has existed for years and has caused other accidents. Unable to settle out of court, Mr. Jones sues the condo association and the management company for negligence. The jury returns a verdict in the amount of $500,000, but apportions fault at 75% (condo. association/management company)/25% (Mr. Jones). Based on the concept of comparative fault, the final judgment for Mr. Jones will be $375,000, or 75% of the total damages found by the jury. (In most cases, the judge has much more to consider than simply performing basic math in reaching a final judgment.)
Until 1973, Florida applied the law of contributory fault in all negligence cases. Under this concept, the plaintiff would be completely barred from making any recovery if it was determined that he or she was at fault in any way, even only 1% at fault. In our example, this would mean that Mr. Jones, although only 25% at fault, would receive nothing for his injuries.
Due to flawed record keeping, it is impossible to know with confidence how often violent crimes -- murder, kidnapping, battery or robbery -- are committed in Florida in conjunction with obtaining cash involuntarily from a victim's ATM. Most law enforcement agencies do not maintain a separate category for ATM crime. Instead, it is listed in more general categories such as robbery, homicide, and sexual battery/rape. The Universal Crime Report (UCR) forms do not have a place to note that a forced ATM withdrawal has taken place.
Despite the lack of information, ATM-related crime is believed to be high. Put another way, ATM-related crime is foreseeable.
The foreseeability of a harmful event happening is an essential element of every personal injury case. For a defendant to be held accountable under civil tort law, the victim, or Plaintiff, must prevent evidence on the issue of foreseeability.
Crime statistics are a way of proving foreseeability in civil tort actions for injuries or death resulting from inadequate security or safety measures. See Holley v. Mt. Zion Terrace Apartments, Inc., 382 So. 2d 98 - Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 3rd Dist. 1980.
The initial question in every premises liability personal injury case concerns the concept of duty. What degree of duty did the landowner (or possessor) owe to the person injured to prevent the accident? Because the next inquiry concerns whether the duty was breached, the answer to the initial question often determines the outcome of these cases. Where no duty is breached, no fault lies. Sometimes the answer to the initial inquiry is clear, sometimes it is not. Due to its importance, duty is frequently litigated although not as much as the issue of breach.
The extent of the duty depends on the person's status on the property at the time of the accident. The following outline sets forth the various status categories recognized under Florida law and the duty owed under each.
- Public Invitee. A person who is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public. (Example: Family in a public park.) This landowner has the following duties: (1) to correct or warn of dangers that the owner knows or should know of by the use of reasonable care, and which the visitor cannot or should not know of by the use of reasonable care; and (2) to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition. (For a fuller understanding of subsection (2), search our blog using the term "Open and Obvious." Landowners like to claim that because a condition is open and obvious, there is no duty to repair it. This is sometimes correct, but not always.)
- Business Invitee. A person who is invited to enter or remain on land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealings with the possessor of the land. (Examples: A grocery story patron; a paying fan at a Miami Dolphins football game.) Duty: same as for Public Invitee.
- Licensee By Invitation. A social guest. Duty: same as for Public Invitee.
- Uninvited Licensee. A person who chooses to come upon the premises solely for his or her own convenience without invitation either expressed or reasonably implied under the circumstances. (Example: teenagers using a private parking as an ad hoc party location.) Duty: To refrain from willful or wanton injury (e.g., to remove any concealed "traps" of which the owner has actual knowledge).
- Trespasser. A person who enters the premises without license, invitation, or other right, and intrudes for some definite purpose of his own, or at his own convenience, or merely as an idler with no apparent purpose, other than perhaps to satisfy his curiosity. Duty: same as for Uninvited Licensee.
In Burton v. MDC PGA Plaza Corp., 78 So.3d 732 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), the plaintiff was seriously injured when, while loading a vehicle, she stepped into a pothole, tripped, and fell to the ground. The pothole was approximately one foot wide and two inches deep. The plaintiff conceded that she knew about the pothole before she fell.
Because the plaintiff knew about the pothole before she fell, the court ruled that the plaintiff could not maintain an action against the landowner Defendant MDC or its tenant, CVS. Summary judgment was granted for the defendants.
Success for the victim of a premises liability accident requires that he or she prove the defendant knew or should have known beforehand of the existence of the dangerous condition which caused the accident, and that the accident was foreseeable.
One of the most effective ways of establishing these elements is through similar prior accidents.
Most business establishments prepare incident reports following accidents. The reports contain accident details along with the victim's name and contact information.
Once a lawsuit is filed, the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure allow the parties to obtain case relevant information, also known as discovery, from each other and non-parties. Subpoenas, depositions, and document requests are the common methods of obtaining information.
Typically, the prior incident reports themselves are not discoverable based on the privilege doctrine of being prepared in anticipation of litigation. However, defendants must provide detailed information about prior accidents, including victim names and contact information, date and location of incidents, and some description of what occurred. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. v. Martin, 739 So.2d 174 (Fla. 2d DCA 1999).
Under Florida law, the duty owed by landowners and/or those in control of properties to individuals other than employees - injuries to employees are governed by Florida's workers' compensation system (see Chapter 440 of the Florida's Statutes) - depends in part on the individual's purpose for being on the property.
Florida divides the status of individuals on property into five categories. This blog lists the categories and the duties owed under each category.