Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal Affirms in Wal-Mart Negligence Case

Typically, if one were asked to think of an object involved in the commission of a tort, an ornamental vegetable would not spring to mind. However, harm caused by an ornamental pumpkin is at the center of a recent negligence decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Schwartz v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Specifically at issue in Schwartz was whether the trial court erred in granting a motion for a new trial following a zero-damages jury verdict and whether the trial court erred by limiting the retrial to just damages for the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation after the accident.

The plaintiff in this case was shopping at a Florida Wal-Mart store when she was struck in the back by an ornamental pumpkin. The ornamental pumpkin weighed 8.4 ounces and was described as squishy. Prior to trial, Wal-Mart conceded that the plaintiff was struck by the pumpkin because of an employee’s negligent conduct. However, Wal-Mart contested both causation and damages, which are both necessary for establishing negligence. After trial, a jury issued a zero-damages verdict, finding that Wal-Mart’s negligence was not the “cause” of the plaintiff’s claimed loss, injury, or damages. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial but limited the new trial to strictly those damages associated with the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation following the accident. On appeal, Wal-Mart argued that the trial court should not have granted the motion for a new trial, and the plaintiff argued that the trial court should not have limited the inquiry on retrial so narrowly.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the Fifth District Court of Appeal never reached her argument. Instead, the court held that the trial court erred in granting the motion for a new trial. To prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove four fundamental elements:  duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. The principal element in dispute in this case was causation. The plaintiff provided considerable evidence tending to show she sustained an injury as a result of being hit by the pumpkin. However, Wal-Mart presented testimony from several experts, including a biomedical engineer who argued that the plaintiff could not have sustained injury as a result of the accident because the force exerted by the pumpkin was well below the threshold necessary to cause injury. The jury resolved this dispute in favor of Wal-Mart and returned a zero-damages verdict.

In granting the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, the court concluded that a new trial was necessary because Florida law provides that even if there is a zero-damages verdict, a plaintiff is entitled to at least recover the cost of an initial medical evaluation performed shortly after an injury when a defendant is negligent and the plaintiff seeks the evaluation a short time after the negligent incident in order to determine whether the negligent act resulted in an injury. See Sparks-Book v. Sports Auth., Inc., 699 So. 2d 767, 768 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997). However, the Fifth District determined that the plaintiff was not entitled to these damages under the circumstances because there is an exception to the rule when “when sufficient evidence is presented at trial regarding certain factors, including but not limited … expert medical opinions which conflict as to causation.” Hernandez v. Gonzalez, 124 So. 3d 988, 991-92 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013). Since Wal-Mart presented considerable expert testimony on causation, the Court of Appeal held that it was permissible for the jury to return a zero-damages verdict.

After resolving this issue, the Court of Appeal quickly disposed of an alternate argument raised by the plaintiff. By failing to challenge the jury instructions and verdict form, the plaintiff could not argue error on this form as a ground for a retrial. Instead, the plaintiff needed to show that no reasonable jury could reach the conclusion the jury in this case reached in order to succeed on the motion. Since there was sufficient evidence at trial from which the jury could reach its verdict, there were no grounds to demand a retrial. Accordingly, the court concluded that the motion for a retrial should have been denied and remanded the case with instructions to reinstate the jury verdict and enter final judgment in favor of Wal-Mart.

Beyond highlighting the assorted issues that can arise in a negligence trial, this case serves as an important reminder about making sure to challenge seemingly insignificant details like a jury instruction, since failing to do so can have an impact on the standard of review that applies on appeal. Given the various evidentiary and procedural complexities that even a seemingly straightforward case can raise, one should always consider acquiring experienced counsel before taking legal action. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at FK Legal have many years of negligence litigation experience and are more than capable of providing the competent representation your case may require. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case evaluation.

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