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