Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Earlier this month, the District Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion in a Florida premises liability case illustrating the difficulties some plaintiffs have when pursuing claims arising from injuries sustained while engaging in recreational activity on another party’s property. The case presented the court with the opportunity to clarify seemingly confusing language in the state’s recreational-use statute. Ultimately, the court resolved the issue in favor of the government defendant, and the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

RollerbladingThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was rollerblading on a street in Delray Beach when he ran into a pothole and fell. He sustained serious injuries in the fall and subsequently filed a premises liability lawsuit against the city. The plaintiff claimed that the city failed to safely maintain the public roadway.

The city claimed that the plaintiff was rollerblading in an area where he was not permitted to do so and that the city should not be held liable. Furthermore, the city pointed to the state’s recreational use statute, which provided immunity to landowners when someone is injured while rollerblading.

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When someone is injured while engaging in an activity that they know to be dangerous, sometimes courts will prevent that person from holding other potentially negligent parties liable, based on the doctrine of assumption of the risk. In order for a court to find that a plaintiff assumed the risk of a dangerous activity, the burden is on the defendant to prove that the plaintiff knew of the dangers involved with the activity and willingly decided to proceed, notwithstanding those dangers.

Stage Door SignIn Florida, courts have limited the application of the assumption of the risk doctrine. Rather than preventing a plaintiff from proceeding with their lawsuit at the outset, Florida courts allow for the jury to factor in the plaintiff’s potential assumption of the risks involved when determining whether the plaintiff was at fault for the accident resulting in his injuries through the doctrine of comparative negligence.

The doctrine of comparative negligence allows for a jury to determine the plaintiff’s own percentage of fault in the accident giving rise to his injuries and then reduce the plaintiff’s total recovery amount by that percent. For example, if a plaintiff was determined to have sustained $5 million in damages but was also found to be 10% responsible for the accident, the plaintiff’s award would be $4.5 million. A recent case illustrates how Florida courts handle a defendant’s claim that the plaintiff assumed the risk of a certain activity.

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parking lotIn an effort to avoid potential litigation, many businesses enact procedures to ensure customer safety. Notwithstanding the ubiquity of such safety procedures, employees do not always follow the rules, which unfortunately leads to injuries to patrons.  When non-compliance with self-imposed safety protocols causes an injury, many people naturally question whether the failure to comply with these procedures amounts to negligence. However, as Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal recently discussed in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Wittke, a failure to comply with internal practices does not necessarily establish negligence.

Wittke revolves around a December 2009 slip-and-fall accident at a Wal-Mart in Bradenton, Florida. The plaintiff in this action was entering the Wal-Mart on a rainy day when she fell and sustained injuries. Surveillance footage showed that there were two large fans and a yellow warning cone in the area where the fall occurred. Although these measures were taken, the plaintiff asserted that Wal-Mart employees failed to follow certain corporate protocols related to wet floors and were otherwise negligent. The case ultimately proceeded to a trial, after which a jury returned a verdict in favor of Wal-Mart. The plaintiff moved for a new trial, and the trial court judge granted the motion. In this order granting a new trial, the judge noted that “the evidence . . . clearly demonstrated that [the plaintiff’s] injuries were the result of [Wal-Mart’s] failure to follow its own safety policies and procedures.” Wal-Mart appealed the order granting a new trial, and the Second District Court of Appeal agreed that a new trial was not warranted and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

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clean-well-1230060-300x200In a recent decision, Mathis v. Sacred Heart Health Sys., Inc., Florida’s First District Court of Appeal reminded the lower courts that there are indeed limits to workers’ compensation immunity. Indeed, in a brief decision, the First District reversed a trial court order granting summary judgment in favor of a building owner that argued it was entitled to workers’ compensation immunity for injuries sustained by an employee of a cleaning company that had been contracted to provide cleaning services at the building.

The injuries at issue in this case occurred at Nemours Children’s Clinic, which is owned by Sacred Heart Health Systems, Inc. The injured employee worked for Coverall Service Company, which, pursuant to a contract with Sacred Heart, provided cleaning services at Nemours. While cleaning, the employee slipped and fell as a result of alleged negligence on the part of Sacred Heart in maintaining the property in a safe condition. After collecting workers’ compensation benefits, the employee brought a premises liability action against Sacred Heart. Following discovery, Sacred Heart moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to immunity pursuant to Section 440.11(1) of Florida’s workers’ compensation law. The trial court agreed and granted the defendant’s motion. The employee then brought the current appeal.

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paintball-1172350In a recent decision, Peterson v. Flare Fittings, Inc., Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal examined the liability of various parties for an injury that occurred at a paintball tournament. Although the plaintiff in this case was a competitor in the competition, the injury at issue had nothing to do with flying paint.

The injury at issue in this case occurred on November 8, 2006. On that day, the plaintiff arrived at a Disney-owned facility that was serving as the venue for a paintball event being hosted by Paintball Sports Promotions, LLC. In addition to a paintball tournament, the event hosted a trade show for the advertising and sale of paintball-related goods. Although the plaintiff arrived on November 8, he was not set to compete until the 10th. While venturing through the vendor area on the 8th, the plaintiff alleges that he was struck in the head by a balloon, which he described as 10 feet in diameter and attached to a tree beside a tent that was being operated by either Flare Fittings, Inc. or Crossfire Paintball, Inc. The plaintiff acknowledged that he did not know what caused the balloon, which had been flying about 70 to 100 feet above the ground, to fall, but he claimed that the impact of the balloon knocked him down, dazed him, and left him in pain. The incident was reported to a manager at Disney, and the plaintiff alleges that the manager told him that Disney would cover his medical costs. The plaintiff sought treatment the same day. After his x-ray came back negative, the plaintiff left the hospital with prescriptions.

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manhole-1573175Following the filing of a complaint, litigants spend a considerable amount of time engaged in discovery, the stage of litigation during which the parties exchange information that will likely be relevant for the development and adjudication of the case. Although both state and federal discovery rules are quite broad, disputes during the discovery process are far from uncommon. Indeed, even when the information may be relevant, litigants will often cite various forms of privilege in an effort to preclude the exchange of information. When the parties reach an impasse, the trial court is often asked to resolve the dispute, and in a recent decision, City of Port St. Lucie v. Follano, the Fourth District Court of Appeal examined the responsibilities a trial court has in resolving a discovery dispute.

Follano began when the soon-to-be plaintiff stepped into an uncovered sewer access pipe.  The plaintiff was caught up to her knee and had to be extracted by the fire department. On the day of the accident, photographs were taken by a representative for the City of Port St. Lucie, the defendant in this case. The city’s photographs show the uncovered sewer pipe, but the city argued that much of the area had been altered by the firefighters who were working in the area. The plaintiff did take photos of the site of the accident on the following day. However, the sewer had been covered by that time. During discovery, the plaintiff moved for an order compelling the city to produce the photographs, arguing that these photos were the only available evidence of the pipe’s appearance at the time of the accident. The city opposed the motion, contending that the photos fell within the work product doctrine. Without examining the photos and relying on the representations of the plaintiff’s counsel, the trial court granted the motion compelling production. The city appealed the court’s decision.

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photo_35115_20141211-300x212Visitors to a Renaissance festival expect to see jousts and sword fights, but they don’t typically expect to be the one dealing with an inadvertent injury at the end of the festivities. However, injuries can happen in the most unexpected places, including as described in a recent decision from the Second District Court of Appeal, the parking lot outside a Renaissance festival. In that decision, Cook v. Bay Area Renaissance Festival of Largo, Inc., the Second District needed to determine whether a trial court erred in granting summary judgment in a trip and fall case.

As noted above, the plaintiff in this case was injured while navigating the parking lot of a local Renaissance festival. Festival volunteers had directed the plaintiff to park in the overflow parking lot. There was an unpaved walkway on a patch of municipality-owned land between the parking lot and the grounds where the festival was being held. Following the festival, the plaintiff was returning to the car when she tripped on an exposed pipe that was on the patch of municipal land. There was nothing obstructing the plaintiff’s view of the pipe. Indeed, the plaintiff’s husband and other festival attendees attempted to warn the plaintiff of the pipe before she tripped. A festival volunteer removed the pipe shortly after the fall. The plaintiff brought a premises liability suit, arguing that the festival was negligent in maintaining the property. The festival moved for summary judgment on her claim against them, arguing that there was not evidence that they had control over the land where the injury occurred. There was conflicting evidence, however, regarding whether festival volunteers had directed her to use the walkway. The trial court granted the festival’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

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photo_10084_20090418-300x218The phrase “premises liability” is generally associated with slip and falls or shoddy construction. However, premises liability can extend to a wide variety of other types of dangerous conditions. For instance, the Second District Court of Appeal recently rendered judgment in Grover v. Karl, which addressed whether a business owner could be liable for a patron’s injuries arising from a bar fight.

Grover started with a fight at The Karl Reef, which is located near New Port Richie, Florida. The plaintiff did not participate in the fight, but she fell and was injured during the course of events. The plaintiff brought a premises liability suit against the bar’s alleged owner and property owner. The bar’s manager was near the plaintiff when the fight ensued. The facts regarding how the plaintiff fell were unclear. The plaintiff originally alleged that she fell when a different bar patron intentionally attacked her. However, during her deposition, the plaintiff testified that when the fight broke out, the manager was shoved and, as a result, fell onto the plaintiff unintentionally. Following discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that the allegations in the complaint were contradicted by the deposition testimony, and there was no issue of material fact regarding the defendant’s notice of the danger or an opportunity to prevent it. Following the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff moved to amend her complaint. The proposed amended complaint sought to add the bar’s manager as a defendant and change the allegations so that they were more consistent with the deposition testimony. Specifically, the plaintiff sought to allege that the manager grabbed her arm and jostled her during the fight, resulting in the fall. The trial court granted summary judgment based on the original complaint and denied the plaintiff leave to amend. The plaintiff appealed.

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photo_18871_20101003Florida is a comparative negligence state, see Section 768.81 Florida Statutes, which means that if a plaintiff’s negligence contributed to his or her injury, recovery can be offset to reflect his or her role in the harm caused. Accordingly, defendants in negligence suits will often argue that certain acts of the plaintiff contributed to the injury. However, to succeed in offsetting liability, the defendant must still prove that the contributory conduct was actually negligent. The Fifth District Court of Appeal recently addressed the dynamics of comparative negligence in its decision in Bongiorno v. Americorp, Inc.

The plaintiff in Bongiorno slipped on what she described as an unusually slippery bathroom floor in the office building where she worked. She brought a negligence suit against the property owner, arguing that negligence in maintaining the floor caused her fall. Among the affirmative defenses asserted by the defendant was comparative negligence. The evidence shows that the plaintiff was wearing four to five inch high heels at the time she fell. The case proceeded to a bench trial, after which the judge concluded both the property owner and the plaintiff were 50 percent liable for the fall. The judge found the plaintiff’s choice to wear heels of that height contributed to her fall. The plaintiff appealed to the Fifth District, arguing that there was insufficient evidence in the record to show that she was negligent for wearing high heels to work.

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photo_1517_20060504The Supreme Court of Florida recently issued an opinion reversing a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision we cited in a previous post. The decision, Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, examines when a defendant is entitled to a directed verdict in negligent security action.

The events leading to the Sanders case started in late 2004 when two young adults moved into an apartment complex that was marketed as a gated community. A year after they moved into the complex, the two were shot to death inside their apartment by unknown assailants. There were no signs of forced entry, but possessions including an engagement ring, cash, and credit cards had been taken. Evidence adduced during discovery showed that in the three years prior to the murders there had been two prior “violent” incidents at the gated community when the gate had been broken and criminals followed residents onto the property. During the year of these murders, the gate had been inoperable for a total of four months. One incident resulted in an armed robbery, the other in an assault. Though a governing manual provides that notice be given to residents when such acts occur, no notice was provided after these incidents.

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