Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Although it is uncommon for premises liability cases to find their way to federal court, the specifics of a case occasionally make resolution in the federal setting possible. When such federal adjudication is accessible, litigants will often strategically use the availability of the federal forum – and, more importantly, the differences in its rules – to their advantage. A recent case from the Southern District of Florida, Fink v. Burlington Coat Factory of Florida, LLC, provides an example of this strategic use of forum selection.

Fink arose from a slip and fall accident at the Burlington Coat Factory in Sawgrass Mills Mall. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff suffered a variety of severe injuries, and she decided to bring a premises liability suit against Burlington Coat Factory and several other defendants. In her complaint, the plaintiff made somewhat conclusory allegations of negligence. Specifically, the plaintiff stated that the defendants negligently maintained the floor in a bumpy and unsmooth condition, which was characterized by unsafe protrusions. However, the plaintiff did not state any particular condition or characteristic that existed and directly caused her fall. The plaintiff originally brought her suit in state court in Broward County, but the defendants, recognizing that the action could have been brought in federal court, had the case removed to the Southern District of Florida pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). After removing the case to federal court, the defendants brought a motion to dismiss, arguing, in part, that the plaintiff’s pleadings were insufficient to maintain her cause of action based on the federal pleading standards delineated in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

For many standard causes of action, both state and federal procedural rules provide form documents outlining the essential facts and allegations one can plead to bring a case. In the instant case, the plaintiff’s complaint was substantially similar to the form pleadings for “fall-down negligence” claims provided by the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fla. R. Civ. P. Form 1.951. Although the action had been brought in state court, where such pleading would have been sufficient, the defendants nonetheless argued that Florida form pleading was insufficient under federal pleading standards. One can see the irony of this argument, considering it was the defendants who brought the case to federal court. However, despite the defendants’ calculated use of the federal removal statute, the court determined that, irrespective of the heightened pleading standard in federal court, the plaintiff’s factual allegations were sufficient to overcome the motion to dismiss.

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As the home of two of America’s three busiest cruise ship ports and the headquarters of numerous cruise companies, the South Florida metropolitan area hosts a considerable amount of litigation involving personal injury at sea. A common surprise to many litigants, however, is that Florida law does not apply in these actions. Instead, federal admiralty law, also known as maritime law, controls the disposition of recovery for those harmed aboard ships on navigable waters. One recent case, Gandhi v. Carnival Corporation, demonstrates how application of admiralty law can limit the possibility of full recovery for those injured on cruise ships and the importance of understanding the nuances of this distinct body of law.

In Gandhi, parents of a child injured aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship brought suit against the company, both personally and on their daughter’s behalf. The plaintiffs’ daughter was injured while standing in a ship elevator when one of her arms was drawn into a space into which an elevator door was closing. Although her arm was ensnared, the elevator door attempted to open and close several times, a process which continued until a fellow passenger freed the arm with assistance of a chair leg. As a result, the child suffered a deep laceration to one of her elbows, severing of several tendons, and a fracture. Her father, who witnessed the entire ordeal, further alleged to have suffered severe emotional trauma. The parents brought suit against Carnival in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for the following claims:  a negligence claim for damages of the minor child, a claim for damages pursuant to the negligent infliction of emotional distress, a damages claim for medical expenses incurred, and a damages claim relating to the loss of filial consortium. Carnival brought a motion to strike provisions from the first claim and to dismiss the remaining claims, and the court, applying admiralty law, sided with Carnival.

First, as a preliminary matter, the court noted that general maritime law controlled in this action and that neither general common law nor state law would be consulted unless there was an absence of maritime law on an issue to be decided. Next, the court moved to the plaintiffs’ claim of negligence. Although Carnival did not move to dismiss this claim, it did move to strike parts of the pleading that appeared to improperly assert the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Generally, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits a jury or other fact-finder to infer negligence when the circumstances of person’s injury are of a variety that usually does not occur in the absence of negligence. Although maritime law allows for the inference of res ipsa loquitur to be raised in a claim for negligence, the court agreed that is was improper to raise the doctrine in the pleadings, since res ipsa loquitur is not a cause of action but rather an evidentiary principle on which a court may, in its discretion, later instruct the jury. Next, the court turned to the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. Although Florida law allows a relative bystander to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he witnesses the negligent injury of a loved one and suffers emotional trauma leading to demonstrable physical harm as a result, see Champion v. Gray, 478 So.2d 17 (Fla. 1985), maritime law adheres to the “zone of danger” test. Pursuant to this standard, one may not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress unless he or she “sustain[s] a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or [is] placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.” Although the father in this case witnessed the injury of his daughter, there were no facts suggesting that he was in an imminent zone of danger. Accordingly, pursuant to the standard set forth in maritime law, the father could not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
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In 2010, the Florida Legislature made sweeping changes to Florida law regarding slip and fall liability for business owners. In that year, the legislature enacted § 768.0755 of the Florida Statutes, which formally requires that a plaintiff in a “slip and fall” case prove that the business where he or she was injured had “knowledge” of the dangerous condition that caused the fall. Since proving knowledge of a dangerous condition is now a formal statutory requirement for establishing slip and fall liability, it is important to understand how a plaintiff would go about making such a showing.

Typically, there are two ways a plaintiff can prove that a business had knowledge or “notice” of the dangerous condition. First, he or she can prove that the business had actual notice by proving an employee had been warned or otherwise informed about the condition. However, this is a difficult avenue to pursue, since an injured plaintiff does not generally have full access to the information necessary to determine which, if any, employees had been warned about a dangerous condition. In addition, employees, even if they can be identified, will generally not be forthcoming with that information. The second and more common method of establishing knowledge of a dangerous condition is known as “constructive notice.” To show “constructive notice,” a plaintiff uses circumstantial evidence related to the nature and duration of the dangerous condition that tends to show that employees who engage in reasonable inspection would have known of the dangerous condition.

In a recent decision from the Southern District of Florida, the court examined the sort of evidence that would be sufficient for showing constructive notice of a dangerous condition. In Garcia v. Target, the court determined whether a plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence to overcome a motion for summary judgment and thus let a jury determine whether there was constructive notice of a dangerous condition. In Garcia, a customer slipped and fell on a wet surface while she was leaving a Target located in Davie, Florida. Target argued that the plaintiff had failed to proffer evidence sufficient to satisfy her burden of proving constructive notice of the wet surface, in part because it had not been raining the day the plaintiff fell and the plaintiff acknowledged she had not seen the dangerous condition prior to slipping nor knew how long it had been there prior to falling.

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Although many would believe, given the frequency of “slip and fall” accidents, that the law in the area should be well settled, Florida law regarding business owners’ “slip and fall” liability has been in considerable flux for the past decade. On February 26, the Fourth District Court of Appeals injected further confusion into the state of the law when it issued its opinion in Pembroke Lakes Mall Ltd. v. McGruder. In McGruder, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that recent legislation altering the liability of business owners in slip and fall cases should not be applied retroactively to accidents that occurred prior to implementation of the legislation. However, this holding, as the Court in McGruder noted, is in direct conflict with an earlier Third District opinion that held that the legislation should be applied retroactively. Accordingly, the Fourth District certified the question to the Supreme Court of Florida for resolution.

This story of “slip and fall” instability began in 2001, when the Supreme Court of Florida rendered its decision in Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc.. In Owens, the Supreme Court of Florida held that “the existence of a foreign substance on the floor of a business premises that causes a customer to fall and be injured is not a safe condition and the existence of that unsafe condition creates a rebuttable presumption that the business owner did not maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315, 331 (Fla. 2001). Thus, “once the plaintiff establishes that he or she fell as a result of a transitory foreign substance, a rebuttable presumption of negligence arises.” Id. In response to this holding, the Florida Legislature in 2002 enacted § 768.0710, which eliminated the burden-shifting scheme adopted in Owens and provided that an injured “slip and fall” plaintiff must prove that the business owner “acted negligently by failing to exercise reasonable care” without the benefit of any presumption. However, actual or constructive knowledge of the transitory substance was still not required. This changed in 2010, when the Florida Legislature repealed § 768.0710 and enacted § 768.0755, aptly titled “Premises Liability for Transitory Foreign Substances in a Business Establishment.” The new statute is fundamentally the same as the former, except that the plaintiff needs to now prove that the business establishment had notice, actual or constructive, of the “dangerous condition.”

In McGruder, the plaintiff was injured in a slip and fall at a mall prior to the enactment of § 768.0755 but filed suit after the implementation of the legislation. Accordingly, the key question is whether § 768.0755 should be applied to the case or if the law outlined in § 768.0710 should apply. With respect to retroactive application of statutes, the courts of Florida apply a two-prong test: 1) did the legislature manifest clear intent for the statute to apply retroactively and 2) absent clear intent, is the statute substantive, procedural, or remedial. Generally, absent clear intent, a substantive statute is not to be applied retroactively, but a procedural or remedial statute should be applied retroactively. Although the Third District had concluded in an earlier decision that the statute was not substantive and, thus, should be applied retroactively, the Fourth District held that requiring notice altered the elements of the claim in such a fashion that the new legislation was substantive and should only be applied prospectively.
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