Federal Appeals Court Reverses and Remands for New Trial in Mysterious Death Case

photo_6173_20080601In a recent decision, Collins v. Marriott International, Inc., the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed an interesting case that involved the un-witnessed death of an Atlanta businessman at a Gulf resort in the Bahamas. At the trial level, the case had progressed all the way to trial, but the trial court ultimately granted the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, leaving the estate of the deceased person with no recovery. In response, the estate, the plaintiff in this action, appealed.

The death at issue occurred at a resort in the Bahamas where the deceased person owned property. The resort is located on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas and is situated at the end of a peninsula ending in a rocky promontory called “the Point.” The Point is composed of  rock formations, steep cliffs dropping to the sea, and a blowhole opening through which waves crash. The resort does not own the area known as the Point, but the land is only accessible from resort property and was not clearly demarcated or separated from the club’s property with either fencing or signage. On the evening of August 16, 2007 at sunset, the deceased person and  friends who accompanied him to the club took a golf cart to the Point, which is located only 50 feet from one of the resort’s paths. While his friends were taking pictures, the deceased man decided to walk up the crest of the Point. When his friends walked up to the crest no more than 10 minutes afterward, however, he was not to be found. The friends returned to the resort, and they and resort staff began searching for the deceased person. His body was found the next day in the water of a cove a few miles from the resort.

Following this unfortunate incident, the estate of the deceased man brought suit against several corporate defendants with either an ownership interest or management authority at the resort. The estate argued that the defendants were negligent because they failed to maintain the property near the Point in a reasonably safe condition, they failed to provide adequate warnings about the dangers posed at the Point, and they failed to bar residents and others from accessing the area. The parties agreed to have the law of Florida apply in this case, although the accident happened in the Bahamas. Following trial and deliberation, a jury returned a verdict finding the plaintiff 99 percent at fault and the defendants one percent at fault. The jury also awarded the estate $0 in damages. Following the verdict, both parties moved for judgment as a matter of law, and the court granted the defendants’ motion. In addition, the estate moved for a new trial on various grounds, but the trial court denied the motion.

In its unanimous opinion, the Eleventh Circuit held that both of these rulings were in error and remanded the case for a new trial. First, pursuant to Florida law, a property owner owes two distinct duties to invitees on its property:  to use reasonable care in maintaining the property in a safe condition for invitees and to give invitees warning of concealed perils of which it is aware or should be aware and of which they are unaware and that they could not have discovered by exercising due care. See Fieldhouse v. Tam Investment Co., 959 So. 2d 1214, 1215 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007). The first of these duties encompasses maintaining the property to prevent foreseeable risks on adjoining property when it is foreseeable the harm posed by the adjoining property may extend beyond that property’s limits. Almarante v. Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Inc., 921 So. 2d 703, 705 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006).

In both reaching its judgment on the motion for judgment as a matter of law and instructing the jury on the applicable law, the trial court erred in its application. First, in granting the motion for judgment, the trial court noted that an owner had no duty to warn an invitee of an open and obvious danger. However, this is only applicable to the second duty outlined above and not the distinct duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. In this case, there was evidence that the resort could have maintained its property in a fashion to counteract the foreseeable risks posed by the Point. In addition, the trial court erred in instructing the jury that it needed to consider a predicate issue of ownership of the Point.  Ownership of the Point was irrelevant. Instead, the issue was whether the defendants maintained the property in a reasonably safe condition to prevent foreseeable harm, including hazards posed by adjacent properties.

In addition to pointing out these errors, the Eleventh Circuit found other errors in the court’s determinations. First, in granting the motion for judgment, the trial court held that the plaintiff had failed to establish that the defendants’ negligence had caused the death and had instead relied on an impermissible stacking of inferences to argue causation. However, such an impermissible inference only exists when there is an absence of evidence regarding negligence or causation, and a jury must infer causation based only on an inference of negligence. Inferences may be stacked, however, when the initial inference is established by evidence to the exclusion of other reasonable theories. In this case, the plaintiff presented evidence of the defendants’ negligence in maintaining conditions near the Point and that this negligence more likely than not caused the death, considering the temporal relationship between the deceased person’s excursion to the Point and the manner of his death.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit held that the jury verdict was an impermissible compromise verdict and that the trial court erred in not granting the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. In this case, the jury had indicated it was deadlocked to the trial judge, but shortly thereafter the jury returned a verdict finding the defendants negligent but not awarding damages in a manner consistent with its verdict or the evidence. Thus, there was evidence the verdict was reached by impermissible compromise, and a motion for a new trial should have been granted. See Mekdeci ex rel. Mekdeci v. Merrell Nat’l Labs., 711 F.2d 1510, 1513-15 (11th Cir. 1983) (finding a verdict to be an impermissible compromise and remanding for a new trial when a jury’s award was inadequate, liability was strongly contested, and the jurors made clear that they could not reach agreement on liability).

Although the estate will get another opportunity at trial, the Eleventh Circuit did leave it strapped with one problem. In its decision, the court determined that it was not improper for the trial court to include evidence of the deceased person’s urine alcohol content at trial. Although urine alcohol content is not as reliable as blood alcohol level in showing intoxication, the court held that this evidence was nonetheless probative. Accordingly, in determining comparative fault, a new jury will likely still apportion a considerable amount of fault to the deceased person. As this case demonstrates, successfully proving negligence can be a herculean undertaking, involving trips to appellate courts, arguments over evidence, and jury complications. Accordingly, anyone considering bringing a negligence case to recover compensation for his or her injuries should consider hiring experienced counsel. If you’re in such a position, the South Florida premises liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have considerable experience litigating negligence claims in both state and federal court and are ready to provide you will competent guidance. Contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation.

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