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 This changed in 2010, when the Florida Legislature repealed § 768.0710 and enacted § 768.0755, aptly titled “Premises Liability for Transitory Foreign Substances in a Business Establishment.”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.