In 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.
Two days later, the plaintiff returned to the site to compete in the competition. Prior to the competition, the plaintiff signed a waiver agreement, which purported to release various parties from any liability for claims incidental to his participation in the event. After returning home, the plaintiff initiated a negligence suit against Disney, Flare, and Crossfire for injuries arising from the incident on November 8. Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. Disney argued that the plaintiff had waived any possible claims by executing the waiver agreement, and Flare and Crossfire argued that the plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence that they breached any duty that resulted in the injury to the plaintiff. The trial court granted all three motions. The Fifth District, however, reversed and remanded the case for trial.
First, the Fifth District addressed the waiver agreement that Disney argued barred the plaintiff’s claims. Under Florida law, exculpatory provisions are generally disfavored because “they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care and shift . . . risk of injury to the party who is probably [less] equipped to take . . . necessary precautions to avoid injury.” Appelgate v. Cable Water Ski, L.C., 974 So. 2d 1112, 1114 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008). Accordingly, although a valid exculpatory agreement may be enforced, it will be narrowly construed and limited “to the extent that the intention to be relieved from liability is . . . clear and unequivocal.” Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, Inc., 27 So. 3d 108, 110 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009). Given that Disney sought to invoke a post-injury waiver, the language need not be specific, but the parties must be still be aware “of the circumstances related to the injury[,] [such that] the injured party can reasonably be held accountable for . . . appreciating the implications of [the] release.” Abis v. Tudin, D.V.M., P.A., 18 So. 3d 666, 669. The Fifth District concluded that the ambiguity in the waiver agreement’s language prevented a finding that the plaintiff had sufficient awareness and accountability at the time he signed the waiver. Although the agreement purported to cover injuries before competition, the court noted that the language in the release focused on participation in the event and not on activities in the vendor area. Since the agreement did not clarify that it sought to remove liability for acts beyond the tournament, it did not provide sufficient notice to the plaintiff that he was waiving his claims.
Next, the Fifth District turned to the other defendants’ argument that there was insufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that they acted negligently. The Fifth District acknowledged that the evidence, which was mainly the plaintiff’s deposition testimony, was thin. However, the court reiterated that summary judgment is not proper “even [if] there is no conflict in the evidence, [so long as] inferences reasonably deducible [from the available evidence] cast doubt upon material issues.” McCabe v. Walt Disney World Co., 350 So. 2d 814, 815 (Fla. 4th DCA 1977). The court noted that the plaintiff testified that the balloon bore Crossfire’s logo, that the balloon was positioned next to a tent being operated by either Flare or Crossfire, and that following the incident the balloon was removed by a representative from the tent. Accordingly, although the evidence was thin, the Fifth District concluded there was sufficient evidence that either Flare or Crossfire could bear liability for failing to secure, position, or maintain the balloon. In a negligence case, the party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that the other party cannot prevail, not that the other party is unlikely to prevail. See Lake Sue Dev. Co., Inc. v. Keewin Real Prop. Co., 950 So. 2d 1280, 1282 n.3 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007). Although the evidence was meager, the Fifth District found it sufficient, especially in light of the fact that the defendants had not adduced evidence demonstrating a lack of negligence on their part but simply had attacked the evidence proffered by the plaintiff.
As Peterson demonstrates, injuries can often happen in unexpected ways. Indeed, the plaintiff may have fully expected to go home with bruises from whirling projectiles, but he likely didn’t expect to be struck by a balloon. Even when an injury may come in an expected manner, the law may nonetheless impose liability on those who could have reasonably prevented the harm. There are many steps in the process from filing a complaint to a jury trial, and anyone who has been injured in a possible incident of negligence should consider finding experienced counsel prior to undertaking any legal action. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many Floridians harmed as a result of negligence in maintaining or safeguarding property, and they can help you assess the viability of a possible claim. If you’ve recently been injured and would like to know more about the legal options you may have, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.