THREE MORE EXPANSIONS OF LIABILITY BY THE FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
Double Murder? Blame the Landlord. In February 2015, Florida’s high court reinstated a case that pinned liability for a double murder on an apartment owner solely because the complex’s security gate was inoperable at the time. Two young adult siblings were shot inside their apartment with no sign of forced entry or witnesses. Police reportedly believe the victims knew their killers, and the case remains unsolved. There had never been a murder, stabbing, shooting or rape at the complex before, just occasional crimes of opportunity.
But after a Broward County judge denied a directed verdict to the defendant, a jury found the apartment complex owner 40% negligent, awarding $1.8 million in damages. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeals threw out the judgment, reaching the reasonable conclusion that the plaintiffs could not show that the apartment gate’s condition played any role in the murders without evidence of how the killers gained entry to the apartment. Nonetheless, in a 5-2 ruling in Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed. It found a jury could reasonably find that the broken gate could have made it easier for the assailants to gain access to the complex.
Imposing liability without evidence of responsibility sends a message that Florida property owners are subject to near strict liability for a crime that occurs on their property. It would seem that all a plaintiff needs to do to collect damages in Florida is identify some security measure that could have, theoretically, played a part, to shift responsibility for a criminal’s act to a landlord.
Excessive Damages for Future Medical Expenses. Inflated and exaggerated damages for future medical expenses were already a concern in Florida when its high court issued a decision in October 2015 making the problem worse.
A divided high court kept juries from knowing that the plaintiff will receive Medicare benefits to pay future medical expenses. The majority reached its ruling in Joerg v. State Farm based on the collateral source rule, which generally precludes introduction of evidence of payments made by third parties to the plaintiff to compensate for an injury when the plaintiff paid for those benefits or otherwise secured them through his or her own diligence. In so doing, the high court reversed an intermediate appellate court ruling that found the collateral source rule did not apply because the plaintiff had not contributed to the financing of the Medicare program.
As Justices Polston and Canady noted in dissent, the majority’s ruling was contrary to a Florida law recognizing that “[g]overnmental or charitable benefits available to all citizens, regardless of wealth or status, should be admissible for the jury to consider in determining the reasonable cost of necessary future care.” As a result of this ruling, businesses and insurers sued in personal injury claims in Florida will be on the hook for future medical expenses that are already covered by taxpayers through Medicare.
Florida Keeps Plaintiff-Friendly Test for Product Defect Cases. Also in October, and with broad ramifications, the Florida Supreme Court reinstated a $6.6 million verdict in an asbestos case, Aubin v. Union Carbide Corporation.
In reaching its decision, the court rejected a test for evaluating product defects that instructs the jury to consider both the benefits and risks of a product’s design. Most state courts follow such an approach, which the influential American Law Institute (take a Closer Look at the ALI on p. 54) viewed as the majority approach since publishing its Restatement Third, Products Liability, in 1998. A risk-utility test focuses the jury on science, technology, the overall safety of the product, the cost of a suggested modification, and consumer needs in deciding whether a manufacturer should have adopted an alternative design for a product. Instead, a divided Florida Supreme Court applied a vague test based on “consumer expectations” of the safety of a product, which provides no guidance to a jury and can lead to unsound results in cases involving complex products. Plaintiffs’ law firms are already using the Aubin decision to recruit clients.
The high court also reinstated the judgment even as it recognized the trial court had improperly failed to instruct the jury that the responsibility of a supplier of raw materials (asbestos) is to warn the purchaser of foreseeable risks. The law does not expect raw material suppliers to directly warn end users of the competed product. This is known as the learned intermediary doctrine. The dissenting justices observed that defendants are now left to wonder which “magic words” are required to secure from trial judges a proper jury instruction.