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Florida Supreme Court Reinstates Personal Injury Award in Bizarre Premises Liability Case

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In October of 2013, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision in Friedrich v. Fetterman & Associates, PA, reinstating the jury’s verdict for a plaintiff injured while visiting a law office and sitting in a chair to speak with an attorney about an unrelated personal injury claim.

Robert Friedrich, the plaintiff in the recent case, was injured in a 2010 automobile accident. Following the accident, Friedrich visited the offices of Fetterman & Associates, P.A., for a legal consultation about a potential personal injury claim related to the accident. As Friedrich was meeting with one of the firm’s lawyers, the office chair in which he was sitting collapsed. The chair’s failure caused the man to fall and strike his head on the ground. After the fall incident, Friedrich’s medical problems from the traffic accident were exacerbated and he ended up having surgery.

Friedrich then proceeded to file a civil suit against Fetterman & Associates, P.A.. In his legal complaint, he alleged the law firm had been negligent by failing to inspect the chair and failed to warn him of the dangerous conditions the office chair presented.

At trial, Friedrich presented an expert witness to testify that the firm should have performed a hands-on inspection of its chairs every six months. The expert claimed that such an inspection would have discovered the defective condition which caused the chair to collapse. Fetterman’s expert testified that the best inspection or test for a chair is for someone to sit on it. The expert further contended that any inspection, including a flex test, would not have revealed the defect.

At the conclusion of the Plaintiff’s case, the defense team moved for a directed verdict. A directed verdict may be entered by a judge if, based on the evidence in the case, he or she determines that no reasonable jury could reach a decision to the contrary, essentially taking away the jury’s authority to decide a case. The trial court then denied Fetterman’s motion for a directed verdict. The case moved forward to a jury trial and Friedrich was awarded damages totaling $2.2 million for the faulty office chair incident.

Appeal Overturned by Florida Supreme Court

Next, the defendant appealed the decision and the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, finding:

“Even if the jury concluded that due care required Fetterman to inspect its chairs at regular six-month intervals, the jury had no basis from which to conclude that Fetterman would have discovered the defect in the chair…”

Friedrich then appealed his case to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court reversed the Fourth District’s decision by a 5-2 vote, effectively reinstating the jury’s initial verdict. The Florida Supreme Court held that the issuance of a directed verdict is inappropriate when there is conflicting evidence regarding liability or the cause of a plaintiff’s injuries exists. The Supreme Court concluded that the Fourth District improperly ‘substituted its judgment concerning the credibility of the witnesses for that of the trier of fact.’

References

ABA Journal

Understanding Florida Premises Liability

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Florida homeowners, private property owners, and commercial property owners are subject to liability provisions under premises law. All Florida residents share certain common responsibilities for the general safety of any person who enters their property including a home, retail store, or office. Homeowners and landowners are responsible for maintaining the conditions of each square foot of a lot.

In most cases, homeowners have a duty to repair any known hazards, such as loose stairs or broken railings. If a homeowner knows of such a danger and must wait to make the repair, he/she must cordon off the danger or posts signs to warn any visitors of the condition. Landowners must keep their property free of obvious hazards and dangerous conditions and may not set traps capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.

Premises liability extends over all areas of property ownership. It involves any injuries from negligent conditions on the premises of hotels, apartment complexes, shopping centers, and office buildings. All property owning entities and lessees share some liability. If someone is injured on a commercial property, damages could be apportioned to business lessees and the property owner.

Classifications of Visitor – Separated by Property Owner Responsibility

Private and commercial property owners are responsible for the varying levels of safety for anyone who enters their property according to three different classifications of visitors:

  1. Business Invitees: For businesses and stores, any person entering the premises for purposes related to that business are considered to be business invitees. Repairmen and utility workers fall under this classification for a homeowner. A homeowner bears the duty to inspect for dangerous conditions that could cause injury to business invitees.
  2. Licensees: This term applies to homeowners who entertain guests. Friends or family members, whether invited or uninvited, who are on the property for social, non-business purposes are licensees. A person visiting a family member at his/her place of employment could also be considered to be a licensee in the event he/she is hurt and files a personal injury claim. A property owner bears the duty to repair any unsafe conditions as well as an obligation to warn visitors of known dangers.
  3. Trespassers: A person without permission to be on private land still has basic rights. Property owners may not set up intentional booby traps capable of deadly force to deter trespassers. If a property owner discovers a trespasser, he/she does have a duty to warn him/her of any known dangers otherwise undetectable through ordinary observation.

Special Exceptions for Children

Florida law provides special protection to children on the basis that they are not able to decipher between right and wrong. This exception is called the attractive nuisance doctrine. This doctrine applies specifically to homeowners with swimming pools, trampolines, or old appliances or cars on their property.

These conditions can entice curious children. Homeowners are responsible for removing or otherwise locking and securing these items. Locks, perimeter fences, and secured gates are acceptable means in most cases. If a child is injured or killed after falling into an unfenced swimming pool, that property owner could be held liable for damages.