Florida Personal Injury Law: Duty Opens the Courthouse Doors

Every personal injury plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant owed and breached a duty of care and that the breach proximately (i.e., foreseeably and substantially) contributed to the specific injury suffered. These are the prima facie elements of a personal injury case.

Whether a duty exists is a matter of law for the court (judge) to determine rather than a factual question for the jury. The duty element of negligence focuses on whether the defendant’s conduct foreseeably created a broader “zone of risk” that poses a general threat of harm to others. See Kaisner v. Kolb, 543 So.2d 732, 735 (Fla. 1989) (citing Stevens v. Jefferson, 436 So.2d 33, 35 (Fla. 1983)). It is a minimal threshold legal requirement for opening the courthouse doors. See McCain v. Florida Power Corporation, 593 So. 2d 500 (Fla. 1992) (In footnote number 1, the court qualified and explained the concept as follows: “Of course, to determine this legal question the court must make some inquiry into the factual allegations. The objective, however, is not to resolve the issues of comparative negligence or other specific factual matters relevant to proximate causation, but to determine whether a foreseeable, general zone of risk was created by the defendant’s conduct.”)

On the other hand, the proximate causation element is concerned with whether and to what extent the defendant’s conduct foreseeably and substantially caused the specific injury that actually occurred. Id. at 502. This is a “much more specific factual requirement that must be proved to win the case once the courthouse doors are open.” Id. at 502. Generally, issues of breach, proximate cause and foreseeability as related to proximate cause are fact questions for the jury, not resolved by summary judgment. McCain and See Springtree Properties, Inc. v. Hammond, 692 So.2d 164, 167 (Fla.1997). Importantly, it is immaterial that the defendant could not foresee the precise manner in which the injury occurred or its exact extent. Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 435 (1965). In such instances, the true extent of the liability would remain questions for the jury to decide. McCain at 503.

Where the injury is caused by a freakish and improbable chain of events, such as where the evidence supports no more than than a single reasonable inference, the judge is free to take the proximate cause matter from the fact-finder. Tatom v. Seaboard Air Line Ry. Co., 93 Fla. 1046, 113 So. 671 (1927). Thus, where reasonable persons could differ as to whether the facts establish proximate causation — i.e., whether the specific injury was genuinely foreseeable or merely an improbable freak — then the resolution of the issue must be left to the fact-finder. Vining v. Avis Rent-A-Car Systems, Inc., 354 So.2d 54, 56 (Fla. 1977); Florida Power & Light Co. v. Bridgeman, 133 Fla. 195, 182 So. 911 (1938).

As to duty, the proper inquiry for the trial court and a reviewing appellate court is whether the defendant’s conduct created a foreseeable zone of risk, not whether the defendant could foresee the specific injury that actually occurred. If the defendant’s conduct created a foreseeable zone of risk, the courthouse doors should remain open.

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