Premises Liability Law in Florida Post-Owens

In Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315 (Fla. 2001), the Florida Supreme Court described Florida’s slip and fall law as it then existed:

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).[4] 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.

This burden shift maddened Big Business. The lobby machine was kicked into action. With a Republican governor and super-majorities in both legislative chambers, in 2010 Big Business was successful in getting a law passed which shifted to the Plaintiff the burden of proving actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition and should have taken action to remedy it. The statute is 768.0755, which reads as follows:

Premises liability for transitory foreign substances in a business establishment
(1) If a person slips and falls on a transitory foreign substance in a business establishment, the injured person must prove that the business establishment had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition and should have taken action to remedy it. Constructive knowledge may be proven by circumstantial evidence showing that: (a) The dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that, in the exercise of ordinary care, the business establishment should have known of the condition; or (b) The condition occurred with regularity and was therefore foreseeable. (2) This section does not affect any common-law duty of care owed by a person or entity in possession or control of a business premises.

This is big stuff. To understand how big, read Owens and the cases discussed in the opinion by the Florida Supreme Court.

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