Articles Posted in Premises Liability

bananaFor purposes of this blog, a transitory substance is any solid or liquid substance, object, or item that is located in a place where it does not belong.

Certain legal standards must be met in order to prevail in a case for personal injuries caused by a transitory substance. Before Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So.2d 315 (Fla. 2001), the injured person had to prove that the owner or person in possession of the premises had actual or constructive knowledge of the transitory substance. Constructive knowledge required a showing “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).

Florida’s appellate courts struggled to determine whether in a given case sufficient evidence existed to create a jury question on the issue of constructive notice. Owens tried to eliminate the struggle by creating a new rule:

where a plaintiff slips and falls on a transitory foreign substance in a defendant’s business premises, once the plaintiff establishes that he or she fell as a result of that transitory foreign substance, the burden shifts to the defendant to produce evidence that it exercised reasonable care under the circumstances.

The rule eliminated the need for proving actual or constructive notice and placed the burden on defendants to show they exercised reasonable care through their maintenance, inspection, repair, and warning procedures and modes of operation.

By the next legislative session, the rule announced in Owens was adopted in part and modified by the Florida Legislature. See Section 768.0710, Florida Statutes (2002). The statute was modified to shift the burden onto claimants to demonstrate that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care.

In 2010, section 768.0710, Florida Statutes (2002) was repealed and replaced with section 768.0755, Florida Statutes. The new statute eliminated negligent maintenance, inspection, repair, warning, or mode of operation as a means of establishing fault, and it reinstated the actual or constructive knowledge standard. The differences between the statutes are explained in Pembroke Lakes Mall Ltd. v. McGruder, 137 So. 3d 418, 424-26 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014):

The most significant change between sections 768.0710 and 768.0755 concerned prior notice of a dangerous condition. The older 2002 statute expressly stated actual or constructive notice was not “a required element of proof to this claim,” but the new 2010 statute expressly stated the plaintiff “must prove that the business establishment had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition.” Additionally, the new statute does not contain any language regarding the owner’s negligent maintenance, inspection, repair, warning, or mode of operation.

The McGruder court went on to say:

Under the 2002 statute, a plaintiff could succeed in a slip and fall case by showing ‘the business premises acted negligently by failing to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance, inspection, repair, warning, or mode of operation of the business premises,’ without showing the business had actual or constructive knowledge of the transitory foreign substance. Under the 2010 statute, however, the same plaintiff would be unable to successfully assert such a cause of action, no matter how persuasive or compelling the evidence the plaintiff had in support of the claim.

Section 768.0755 reads as follows:

(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.

Whereas 768.0710 was a version of Owens, 768.0755 is a throwback to the law as it existed before Owens. The following cases, both pre-Owens and post-768.0755, are examples of how the law is applied. Since Owens is moot, none of the cited cases were decided under Owens.

Against Plaintiff

North Lauderdale Supermarket v Puentes, 332 So.3d 526 (Fla. 4th DCA 2021). Puentes slipped and fell on a purportedly oily substance on the floor of Defendant’s business establishment. Defendant appealed the non-modified use of standard jury instruction 401.20(a) (“Issues on Plaintiff’s Claim — Premises Liability”). In pertinent part, the instruction read as follows:

Whether Defendant, Sedano’s Supermarket #35, negligently failed to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition….   

Finding that the instruction was not correct, the DCA reversed. The court explained that the law in effect, section 768.0755, differs from its predecessor, section 768.0710, by not allowing for liability based solely on the business establishment’s general failure to maintain the premises, while the instruction permitted the jury to find Defendant liable on a theory of negligent maintenance without making the statutorily required finding that Defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. The court noted that the Committee on Standard Jury Instructions (Civil) at 2 (June 7, 2019), did not propose redrafting instruction 401.20(a) itself, stating that the instruction remained “accurate for premises liability claims involving a landowner or possessor’s negligence toward invitees and invited licensees that do not involve transitory foreign substances.” Id. (emphasis added).

Lago v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 233 So.3d 1248 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2017). A slip and fall case. Summary judgment for Costco affirmed on appeal. The appellate court noted the following factors: As to actual notice, Lago testified she did not see any Costco employee around the liquid or by the entrance before or when she fell. As to constructive notice, “Lago’s testimony was almost identical to the Delgado [Delgado v. Laundromax, Inc., 65 So.3d 1087 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011)] plaintiff. Lago testified that it was not raining (the slip and fall happened under an overhang in front of the Costco entrance), she did not see the liquid on the floor before she fell, she didn’t know what the liquid was (other than that it was wet), and she didn’t know how long it had been there. Lago saw no one else slip in the same busy entranceway before and after her fall.” “Without additional facts suggesting the liquid had been there for a long period of time or this happened regularly, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Costco.”

Tallahassee Med. Ctr., Inc. v. Kemp, 324 So.3d 14 (Fla. 1st DCA 2021). Trial court denial of directed verdict for defendant Tallahassee Medical Center reversed on appeal. Plaintiff fell in front of a utility-room door. The court decided that video evidence of employees moving trash bags, linen bags, and trays into the utility room next to where she fell and a housekeeping cart wheeled over the spot that she fell was not enough circumstantial evidence to get the case to a jury. The court noted that the video showed no leaks, spills, drops, or other deposits of a liquid substance onto the floor and that plaintiff saw nothing drop from the tray being carried by the employee she saw immediately before her fall. Here’s the court’s reasoning:

Plaintiffs may not stack inferences upon a debatable inference drawn from circumstantial evidenceSee [State Farm Mutual v] Hanania, [261 So. 3d 684] at 687 [Fla. 1st DCA 2018]. Instead, a directed verdict should issue for a defendant “if a plaintiff relies upon circumstantial evidence to establish a fact, fails to do so to the `exclusion of all other reasonable inferences,’ but then stacks further inferences upon it to establish causation.” Id. (quoting Broward Exec. Builders, Inc. v. Zota, 192 So. 3d 534, 537 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016)). This rule against stacking inferences “protect[s] litigants from verdicts based on conjecture and speculation.” Id. (quoting Zota, 192 So. 3d at 537; see also Publix Super Markets, Inc. v. Bellaiche, 245 So. 3d 873, 876 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) (foreclosing a jury from stacking inferences from circumstantial evidence to arrive at a verdict).

Walker v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 160 So.3d 909 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014). Summary judgment for Winn-Dixie upheld on appeal. The facts:

  • Appellant saw no water or other liquid substance before she fell.
  • She could not say whether she saw any such substance on the floor after she fell, although she claimed she saw “wet tracks” from the wheels of the cart.
  • When asked if she saw any water tracks, Appellant responded: “I just know that my shoes got damp from the floorboard of the electric cart” while bringing the cart back to the store.
  • Appellant described the condition that allegedly caused her fall as “just drops of water” that were “unnoticeable”; thus, she did not see the substance before her fall. Furthermore, she was not sure how long the water was there.
  • The store manager observed a video taken by a store surveillance camera that showed two of his assistants inspecting the area where Appellant fell two to three minutes before the incident happened.
  • When asked if it rained on the day in question, the manager responded that he believed it did, but “I don’t know if it just stopped or just started.” When asked why he believed it rained, Williams responded: “Because in the video, it shows that we had an umbrella rack up,” which are “plastic bags where your umbrella gets into, and that’s to keep them from dripping.” These are put out “[b]efore a rain or during a rain.”
  • Pursuant to Winn-Dixie’s rainy-day policy, right before a rain or after, a mat, two cones, and an umbrella rack would be put down near the entrance door. The manager did not see the mat in place in the video footage from the time of the incident. Asked why the mat was not down, he didn’t know if it was because it had stopped raining, or if it hadn’t rained yet and his people were in the process of doing it.
  • As for why the umbrella rack was there, the manager assumed that it had just rained or was about to rain.

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Litigants seek probative evidence to prove their cases through procedural discovery methods. In personal injury cases, incident reports describing the circumstances of the accident typically contain valuable information.

Defendants usually oppose turning over incident reports to plaintiffs. The argument is that the incident report was prepared in anticipation of litigation and, therefore, is protected by the work-product privilege. See Marshalls of M.A., Inc. v. Witter, 186 So. 3d 570, 573 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) (“Incident reports, internal investigative reports, and information gathered by employees to be used to defend against potential litigation are generally protected by the work-product privilege.”).

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To defeat a negligent security claim arising from a violent crime, property owners and event organizers used to be able to hide behind the defense that nothing similar happened in the past. In a society buried in cellphone footage of violent crimes, juries are less inclined to give those who hold the safety of others in their hands a free strike or two before holding them accountable. Those in control of surrounding circumstances are now expected to be proactive in protecting against foreseeable harm.

Examples of proactive conduct include:

  • A visible security presence including guards and cameras.

8-225x300In the interest of public health, safety, and welfare, most construction projects require the services of licensed contractors. See Section 489.101, Florida Statutes. Section 489.103 outlines various exemptions to this public policy. One of the exemptions, contained in 489.101(7)(a), applies to “Owners of property when acting as their own contractor and providing direct, onsite supervision themselves of all work not performed by licensed contractors.”

To impress upon owners the significance and consequences of operating as their own contractors without being licensed, the statute contains a 12-part section titled “Disclosure Statement.” The owner is required to sign this form for the local permitting agency.

In general, Florida law provides that “[A] property owner who employs an independent contractor to perform work on his property will not be held liable for injuries sustained by the employee of an independent contractor during the performance of that work.” Strickland v. TIMCO Aviation Servs., Inc., 66 So. 3d 1002, 1006 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011).

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dollarsIt is common for health and disability (lost wages) insurance companies to pay benefits to their insureds who have been injured through the negligence of others. Most of the insurance policies contain language granting the insurance company a right of reimbursement for the money it has paid out from the proceeds recovered by the insured in the personal injury case for the same losses.

How much must be repaid depends on policy language and who is paying the settlement or judgment in the personal injury case.

Many of the insurance policies provide that the carrier has the right to be reimbursed in full up to the amount recovered in the liability case before the insured and the insured’s attorney receive penny one. When the compensation is paid by a tortfeasor, who is the person or entity responsible for causing the harm, reimbursement is determined by the formula set forth in  section 768.76(4), Florida Statutes. The statutory formula applies even where the insurance policy calls for full reimbursement to the carrier first. In Ingenix v. Ham, 35 So.3d 949 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2010), Gerald Ham’s health insurer, UnitedHealthcare, paid almost all of Ham’s medical bills relating to a medical procedure that ultimately resulted in his death. After settling with the medical providers (i.e., tortfeasors) in a medical malpractice lawsuit, Ham’s estate contended that it was only required to reimburse UnitedHealthcare a reduced amount according to the formula set out in section 768.76(4), Florida Statutes (2008). UnitedHealthcare took the position that it was entitled to full reimbursement in accordance with the language of its policy. The court held that section 768.76(4) controlled, limiting UnitedHealthcare’s reimbursement to the formula under section 768.76(4).

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Google-Street-View-300x225One of the most important elements in a premises liability case is proving notice of the dangerous condition. This is done by demonstrating that the owner and/or possessor of the premises had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition before the accident occurred.

Google Maps was launched in 2005, Google Street View in 2007. Images captured by both sometimes demonstrate constructive knowledge by showing that a dangerous condition existed for a period of time sufficient to impute notice against the owner or possessor of the property. The trick for the proponent of the Google images is to get them admitted into evidence.

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Rodin2-Thinker-233x300Florida case has long allowed the spouse of an injured married partner to bring a cause of action for loss of consortium, and though derivative in the sense of being occasioned by injury to the spouse, it is a direct injury to the spouse who has lost the consortium.  Busby v. Winn & Lovett Miami, Inc., 80 So.2d 675 (Fla.1955). Such damages range from the loss of household services (such as cooking and cleaning) to adversely affected sexual relations. It is precisely because of the spouse’s right to loss of consortium damages that both spouses are typically required to sign settlement releases.

While the consortium claim is a separate cause of action, as a derivative claim it must be brought in the same lawsuit as the underlying injury claim. As so eloquently stated by ace Florida trial lawyer Dale Swope, there are consequential reasons for not rushing headlong into bringing a claim for loss of consortium: “[T]hey can do more harm than good. They open the door to broader discovery, lead to internal disagreement, create the potential risk of execution on jointly held assets, and look to the jury like a lawyer-created claim that is just excessive. They also do not increase the coverage available (except in sovereign cases) and can also cause trouble with Medicaid if the allocation of a global recovery is made unilaterally.” See May/June 2019 Florida Justice Association Journal. Hence, unless the spouse has demonstrable damages, it may be best to let is rest. (All too often, spouses overestimate the value of consortium claims or their lawyers fail to give adequate consideration to the negatives.)

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peopleCell phone related distraction accounts for a great number of motor vehicle crashes. Legislation aimed at curbing these preventable events has been enacted in parts of Europe, Canada, and the United States. Florida remains one of just a handful of states without meaningful legislation designed to curb mobile phone abuse while operating a motor vehicle.

With less fanfare, cell phone distraction has become a leading cause of premises liability accidents. The chances of tripping or slipping and falling on a dangerous condition, such as an uneven surface or foreign substance, is increased by inattention.

Florida law apportions damages in most personal injury cases on the basis of each party’s percentage of fault. This includes the injured victim. The concept, contained in section 768.81, Florida Statutes, is known as comparative fault. For example, in most rear-end car crash cases where the lead vehicle is rightfully stopped due to traffic or a road signal, the trailing vehicle is found to be 100% at-fault. However, if it can be established that the lead vehicle stopped suddenly or unexpectedly or that the tail lights of the vehicle did not work, a percentage of fault may be apportioned against the owner or operator of that vehicle. If a jury decides that the owner or operator sustained $100,000 in damages but was 50% at-fault, the judgment in the o/o’s favor would be cut in half to $50,000.

scales-of-justice-300x203Many experts believe that the  First District Court of Appeal’s April 5, 2019 ruling in Sedgwick CMS v. Tamatha Valcourt-Williams will open the floodgates for more civil negligence lawsuits brought by employees against employers.

Because of the immunity provisions of section 440.11, Florida Statutes, such lawsuits have always been exceedingly rare in Florida. Under the current version of the statute, the exceptions to this exclusiveness of liability are:

  1. When an employer fails to secure workers’ compensation coverage; or
  2. When an employer commits an intentional tort that causes the injury or death of the employee

A third exception arises when an employer/carrier defends a workers’ compensation claim on the basis that “the injury did not occur in the course and scope of employment, or that there was no employment relationship.” An employer taking this position is estopped from asserting the 440.11 workers’ compensation immunity defense in a civil negligence suit brought against the employer. See, Byerely v. Citrus Publishing, Inc., 725 So.2d 1230 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999).

The Sedgwick case appears to have expanded the scope of injuries workers’ compensation employers/carriers can deny as not having occurred in the course and scope of employment. The flip side of this will be an increase in opportunities for personal injury lawyers to pursue civil negligence claims resulting from workplace accidents. It remains to be seen if these projections will hold up over time, but workers’ compensation insurance companies and personal injury lawyers are not expected to waste any time testing the waters.

As workers’ compensation claimants’ attorneys are bracing for an onslaught of denied claims, personal injury lawyers are licking their chops at the prospect of seeing an expanded number of personal injury cases come their way. While a denied claim may still be prosecuted under workers’ compensation, some of those denials will naturally end up as circuit court negligence cases. In those cases, claims of workers’ compensation immunity will be met with Byerley and Sedgwick arguments. Moreover, Sedgwick expands the opportunities to jump right into the personal injury arena rather than wait for the claim to be denied under workers’ compensation. While not waiting has always been an option, Sedgwick makes it easier for the plaintiff to argue successfully that the injury did not occur in the course and scope of the employment.

In Sedgwick, a workers’ compensation adjuster authorized to work from home injured herself during a coffee break when she tripped over her dog. She filed for workers’ compensation benefits and won at the trial level. The employer appealed and was successful in having the trial level decision reversed. The DCA decided that the adjuster was not injured in the course and scope of her employment. It framed the question of compensability as “whether the employment—wherever it is—’“necessarily exposes a claimant to conditions which substantially contribute to the risk of injury,”’ a concept it calls “occupational causation,” Sentry Ins. Co. v. Hamlin, 69 So.3d 1065, 1068 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) (citing Acker v. Charles R. Burklew Constr., 654 So.2d 1211 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995)), or a risk not existent in the claimant’s “non-employment life.” Medeiros v. Residential Cmtys. of Am., 481 So. 2d 92, 93 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986); accord Glasser v. Youth Shop, 54 So. 2d 686, 687-88 (Fla. 1951) (“Since industry must carry the burden, there must then be some causal connection between the employment and the injury, or it must have had its origin in some risk incident to or connected with the employment, or have followed from it as a natural consequence.”).

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peopleIn this day and age of surveillance cameras everywhere, it is not uncommon for premises accidents to be captured on video. For various reasons it is critically important for the plaintiff’s attorney to secure a copy of all videos as soon as possible. One of the most important reasons is to enable the victim to recount the accident before giving sworn testimony wholly on memory. Even truthful witnesses can have a shaky grasp of the facts. Time, excitement, injury, uncertainty, nervousness — all can work against an accurate account of a traumatic event.

Once a lawsuit is filed and served, the parties to a premises liability action typically engage in what is known as Discovery. Interrogatories, which are questions answered under oath, and live testimony by deposition are two of the most common discovery vehicles. The mechanism of injury is usually at issue in premises liability cases. How and why did the accident happen?

In Business Telecommunications Services, Inc. v. Elena Madrigal, Case No. 3D18-2106, (Fla. 3rd DCA 2019), the appellant Business Telecommunications Services, Inc. was ordered by the trial court to turn over a surveillance video in advance of the deposition of the plaintiff in a personal injury case. The defendant appealed the court order, relying on cases such as Dodson v. Persell, 390 So. 2d 704 (Fla. 1980). The 3rd DCA decided that such reliance was misplaced, and thus refused to reverse the trial court’s order.

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