Florida Court Clarifies that Non-Compliance with Internal Safety Procedures is not Tantamount to Negligence

In 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.

First, the Court of Appeal noted that the trial court’s order rested on an erroneous legal finding. Under Florida law, a company’s “internal rule does not itself fix the legal standard of care in a negligence action,” Mayo v. Publix Super Mkts., Inc., 686 So. 2d 801, 802 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). Indeed, although “a written policy or manual may be instructive in determining whether the alleged tortfeasor acted negligently . . . , [the policy] does not itself establish such a legal duty vis-a-vis individual members of the public.” Pollock v. Fla. Dep’t of Highway Patrol, 882 So. 2d 928, 937 (Fla. 2004). Accordingly, the trial court erred in holding that the employees’ failure to comply with the procedures amounted to negligence. Furthermore, the Second District noted that even though internal procedures may be admissible to demonstrate a showing of negligence, “evidence that the rule was violated is not evidence of negligence unless and until the jury finds . . . that the internal rule represents the [applicable] standard of care.” Steinberg v. Lomenick, 531 So. 2d 199, 201 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988). In this case, the appeals court noted that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of establishing that the safety procedures she proffered to support her negligence finding, which consisted of 2003 policies and procedures from an Illinois Wal-Mart, were relevant to establishing the standard of care applicable to this Florida Wal-Mart.

Since the order granting a new trial rested on an error of law, “the inquiry then bec[came] whether the trial court would have granted a new trial but for the error of law.” Van v. Schmidt, 122 So. 3d 243, 246 (Fla. 2013). In this case, the Second District found that but for the legal error, the trial court would not have granted the motion. Specifically, the court noted that the only way the trial court could have reached its conclusion was a reliance on its erroneous holding that non-compliance with internal practices is a per-se violation of the applicable standard of care. Indeed, the jury found that the plaintiff did not prove that Wal-Mart was negligent, and the evidence proffered by the plaintiff was not of such substantial weight that the trial court could have reasonably found grounds for a new trial in the absence of its error of law. Accordingly, the Second District reversed the order granting a new trial and remanded the case with instructions that the jury verdict be reinstated.

Although Wittke makes clear that proving noncompliance with existing safety procedures is not sufficient in isolation to establish negligence, the decision nevertheless notes that a failure to comply with such procedures can still be relevant if a plaintiff establishes that the corporate rules that were violated are relevant to the standard of care. Accordingly, in cases involving a possible failure to follow corporate procedures, one should make an effort to not only establish the applicability of those practices but also show that negligence occurred, whether or not the procedures are relevant. Guidance from an experienced attorney can be helpful to those in this situation, and people injured in slip-and-falls should consider finding competent legal counsel before initiating legal action. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented a number of slip-and-fall plaintiffs, and they are ready to provide zealous representation to those harmed as a result of possible negligence. Indeed, if you’ve recently been injured in a slip-and-fall and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a complimentary case consultation.

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