Recently, the district court of appeals for the State of Florida Fifth District issued an opinion in an appeal involving a negligence claim by the appellant, the plaintiff, against the appellee, First Team Ford, LTD d/b/a Autonation Ford Sanford, a Florida Limited Partnership (the Dealership). Ryan Matthews, the general manager of the Dealership drove a Ford Expedition owned by the dealership home one day. On his drive home, he got in an automobile accident with the plaintiff. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff filed a complaint against Matthews and the Dealership, alleging a negligence claim against Matthews, and a vicarious liability claim against the Dealership. The plaintiff settled with Matthews and the case proceeded solely against the Dealership. At trial, the court entered a final summary judgment in favor of the Dealership.

Facts of the Case

On December 21, 2016, Matthews, the general manager of the Dealership, drove his wife’s vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, into the dealership. Matthews testified that he brought the Chevy Tahoe into the Dealership to get the oil changed, but also that he was interested in purchasing a Ford Expedition, and used this as an opportunity to test one out. While there, Matthews executed a “Loaned Vehicle Agreement” in order to drive home a Ford Expedition owned by the Dealership. Matthews left the Dealership driving the Ford Expedition. On the drive home, Matthews got into a car accident with the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed a complaint against both Matthews and the Dealership, alleging negligence by Matthews and vicarious liability against the Dealership under Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine. Matthews and the plaintiff settled, leaving only the case against the Dealership.

In a recent case, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a nonfinal order granting the appellee, a patient, an amended motion for leave to amend her complaint to state a claim for punitive damages against the appellant, a doctor. In the lawsuit, the patient alleged that the doctor improperly treated her using a medically unnecessary course of radiation after she was referred to him by another physician to treat a lesion on her hand. After discussing various treatments with the doctor, the patient opted for radiation treatment. The patient now alleges that the doctor’s treatment fell “well outside” the standard of care. The trial court allowed the patient to amend her complaint to add a punitive damages claim following a hearing on the motion.

The patient was referred to the doctor following a diagnosis of a lesion on her hand as squamous cell carcinoma by a different physician following a biopsy. The patient disputes whether the diagnosis was correct. After meeting with the doctor and discussing various treatment options, the patient opted for a radiation treatment plan. In the course of obtaining the patient’s informed consent, the doctor informed her that surgery was an option, but it would likely impact her ability to maintain her current lifestyle as an avid golfer. The patient agreed to the treatment plan offered by the doctor, which called for radiation treatment twice a day, with treatments sometimes occurring as little as forty-five minutes apart. The doctor alleges that he prescribes this protocol to all of his patients undergoing radiation therapy.

At trial, the patient subsequently sought leave to amend her complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages. She asserts that the radiation treatment that she received from the doctor was not recognized as acceptable in the medical community and that the doctor unnecessarily subjected her to an increased risk of cancer in her lifetime from the radiation for his own financial gain. In making this claim, the patient stated that the doctor’s actions amounted to more than mere negligence, and instead constituted behavior reflecting a conscious disregard for her life and safety. The patient included three items of evidence: 1) an attestation by her expert stating that the doctor’s treatment fell “way outside” of the standard of care; 2) the doctor’s deposition; and 3) documents of two federal cases involving the doctor that included allegations of Medicare fraud and obstruction of a criminal health care investigation. At trial, the court allowed the patient to amend her complaint to add the punitive damages claim.

In a recent case, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a benefits dispute between a housekeeper and an employer. The appellee filed a petition for benefits and alleged injury while “house keeping” for the appellant. The appellant moved for a summary final order on the grounds that domestic servants in private homes are expressly excluded from the definition of employment under section 440.02(17)(c)1., Florida Statutes. The Judge of Compensation Claims (JCCs) denied the appellant’s motion, and the appellant appealed.

The appellate decision states that JCCs are “vested only with certain limited quasi-judicial powers relating to the adjudication of claims for compensation and benefits.” Given that, JCCs do not have inherent judicial powers but, instead, only have the power expressly conferred by Chapter 440 in Florida. The appeals court further stated that in order for an individual to be considered an “employee” under the Workers’ Compensation Laws of Florida, chapter 440 states “Employment” is defined as ’“all private employments in which four or more employees are employed by the same employer,”’ but specifically excludes housekeeping services. The statute states, ‘“‘Employment’ does not include service by or as . . . domestic servants in private homes.”’

The appellate opinion further states that in her motion for summary final order, the appellant attached an affidavit stating that she does not operate a business at her private residence, does not employ four or more individuals at her private residence, and does not carry a workers’ compensation insurance policy. Affidavits are allowed to be considered to determine subject matter jurisdiction. Once the appellant filed her motion with her affidavit demonstrating that the OJCC did not have subject jurisdiction, the burden shifted to the appellee to provide an affidavit that did establish subject matter jurisdiction of the JCC. The appellee did not provide an affidavit but instead stated that the appellant’s affidavit was “unauthenticated hearsay” and that “reliance on an affidavit is not a sufficient basis to merit entry of Summary Final Order.”

In a recent case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion in an appeal involving a dispute regarding the definition of a land motor vehicle in an insurance policy. The plaintiff, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm), sued the defendant, an individual with a car insurance policy with State Farm after the defendant filed a claim when she was struck by an uninsured driver of an electric motorized scooter. State Farm denied the defendant’s claim and then sued, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Policy provided no coverage. Both parties moved for summary judgment. At trial, the district court denied the defendant’s motion and granted summary judgment in part to State Farm. The plaintiff then filed a timely appeal.

The incident that triggered this case occurred on a Florida highway when the defendant’s insured Nissan Altima was struck by a driver operating a Razor Pocket Mod scooter (the Scooter). The Scooter had a top speed of 15 mph with a total battery life of 40 minutes of continuous ride time. The Scooter was not manufactured with a taillight, brake lights, turn signals, or exterior mirrors, and no such equipment had been added. The defendant suffered serious injuries to her neck, back, and knee, with surgery expected as a result of the crash. The Nissan Altima sustained a cracked headlight and fog light, a crushed front bumper and fender, and a cracked passenger side mirror.

Following the crash, the defendant submitted a claim to State Farm for UM coverage in the amount of $100,000. State Farm denied the claim, stating that the Scooter was not an “uninsured motor vehicle” under the policy. The State Farm insurance policy stated that it would “pay compensatory damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to recover from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle.

On March 24, 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a far-reaching tort reform bill into law. The new law enacts several major changes to the Florida negligence liability system, the standard for bad-faith insurance claims, and the use of contingency-fee multipliers when calculating attorneys’ fees. Each of these changes directly influences how plaintiffs are able to pursue their claims in Florida moving forward. The announcement of the changes triggered a rush to the courthouses with negligence lawsuits in advance of its effective date, suggesting that the bill will curtain the overall tort liability landscape throughout the state.

Modified Comparative Negligence

The headline of the changes enacted by the Florida tort reform bill is the statewide shift from a pure comparative negligence system to a modified comparative negligence system. Under the old pure comparative negligence system, a plaintiff could recover an amount in proportion to the defendants’ percentage of responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries regardless of the plaintiff’s liability. In practice, that meant that if a defendant was 30% responsible for a plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff could recover 30% of the damages associated with the injury from the defendant, even if the plaintiff was 70% liable. Under the old system, the plaintiff had four years to file a negligence lawsuit.

Under the new system, a plaintiff is able to recover in proportion to the defendants’ percentage of responsibility only if the plaintiff’s own share of responsibility is 50% or less. Meaning that if a plaintiff is more than 50% liable, the plaintiff cannot recover from the defendant. Additionally, the plaintiff has two years to file a negligence lawsuit, not four.

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In a recent appeals case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit produced an opinion for an appeal involving a summary judgment ruling in a negligence case in Florida. The plaintiff-appellant was injured when she slipped on a grape in a Wal-Mart store and she subsequently sued the defendant-appellee, Wal-Mart Stores East, LP (Wal-Mart), for negligence. At trial, after the discovery process was completed, Wal-Mart moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted, finding that the plaintiff failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact that Wal-Mart had constructive knowledge that Wal-Mart had constructive knowledge of the grape, and thus she could not succeed on a negligence claim under Florida law. The plaintiff then filed a timely appeal.

The incident in question occurred on August 23, 2018, when the plaintiff was shopping at a Wal-Mart in West Palm Beach when she slipped on a grape and fell on her back and left side. A nearby employee helped her get up. The plaintiff reported feeling dizzy, and after filling out a Customer Incident Report, she went to Palm Beach Gardens Hospital, where she received treatment. The plaintiff had twice inspected the produce section near the grapes before falling, stating that she had not seen the grape either time. An employee had walked through the section approximately ten minutes prior to the accident and did not see the grape. A two-hour video from Wal-Mart’s surveillance cameras could not conclusively establish when the grape appeared in that spot. Following the accident the plaintiff sued Wal-Mart for negligence and Wal-Mart removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida based on diversity jurisdiction.

Following the district court’s granting of summary judgment, the plaintiff filed an appeal contending that when viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the evidence on the record contains a genuine dispute of material fact over Wal-Mart’s constructive knowledge of the grape that caused her to fall. Under Florida law, a plaintiff must establish four elements to sustain a successful negligence claim: (1) “the defendant owed a ‘duty, or obligation, recognized by the law, requiring the [defendant] to conform to a certain standard of conduct, for the protection of others against unreasonable risks’”; (2) “the defendant failed to conform to that duty”; (3) there is “‘[a] reasonably close causal connection between the [nonconforming] conduct and the resulting injury’ to the claimant”; and (4) “some actual harm.”

In a recent case, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a direct negligence claim and a vicarious liability claim by the appellant, the plaintiff, the appellees, a corporation, and its supervising employees. The plaintiff’s claim arose from a crash he suffered while riding his bicycle along a busy street. When he crossed in front of an automobile dealership, an employee of the dealership was leaving in a company van for delivery and crashed into the plaintiff. Responding to the operative complaint, the dealership admitted ownership of the van and that the driver was driving the van with permission while in the course of his employment when the crash occurred. At trial, the lower court dismissed all of the plaintiff’s claims.

At trial, the plaintiff filed claims of negligent driving against the driver and the dealership and additionally filed a claim against the dealership supervisors for negligent training, retention, supervision, and entrustment. He also filed a complaint alleging negligent hiring against the service manager. Finally, the plaintiff filed a vicarious liability complaint against the dealership corporation, North American Automotive Services, Inc. (North American), for the acts of its employee, the general manager. The supervisors, as well as North American each moved to dismiss their respective claims, and the trial court granted all three motions to dismiss. After final orders were entered dismissing the negligent employment claims with prejudice, the plaintiff gave notice of appeal.

On appeal, the plaintiff contended that the trial court erred in dismissing his claims against the supervisors and North American by ruling that, pursuant to Clooney, negligent employment claims against individual supervisors must allege that the subordinate employee’s negligent acts were outside the scope of employment. The appellate opinion found that the trial court’s reliance on Clooney was misplaced. In Clooney, the plaintiff did not allege direct negligence against the employer. Instead, the two counts which the trial court struck alleged concurrent theories of recovery based on vicarious liability. In short, the counts in Clooney were redundant. Additionally, the negligent employment claims in Clooney were brought against the employer and not individually against the supervisor. The appellate opinion further pointed out that in the case before them, the plaintiff did not make any negligent employment claims against the employer of the driver causing the accident, but instead, the negligent employment claims were made against the supervisors individually, and vicariously against an employer of one of the supervisors.

In a recent case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion in an appeal involving a bad faith claim in an insurance case under Florida law. The plaintiff-appellant was injured in a car accident and subsequently sued the defendant-appellee, USAA General Indemnity Company, for bad faith. At trial, after the parties had conducted discovery, USAA moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The court concluded that there was no genuine dispute as to the bad faith claim because USAA had, at most, acted negligently in handling the claim. While that alone was sufficient for summary judgment in the eyes of the district court, the court further concluded that no reasonable jury could find USAA’s conduct caused the plaintiff to obtain the excess judgment against the insured party because the evidence showed that the plaintiff’s lawyer never intended to settle the case, granting summary judgment. The plaintiff then filed a timely appeal.

The accident that triggered the case involved three drivers: the insured, the plaintiff, and a non-party. On July 29, 2017, the insured lost control of his van and struck the non-party. The collision caused the insured to veer into oncoming traffic, landing on top of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff suffered catastrophic injuries, including a torn aorta and several broken bones. He was airlifted from the crash site to the hospital, where he remained in a medically induced coma in the ICU for ten days before spending an additional three weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities. A few days after the accident, USAA warned the insured of the possibility of an excess judgment and then again on August 8 and in a letter on October 26. Additionally, USAA began to investigate the case by collecting statements, corresponding with the plaintiff’s attorney, and obtaining the police report. Eventually, USAA tendered the policy limits, offering to settle with the plaintiff in exchange for a release of liability. The plaintiff’s attorney never offered to settle or sent a counteroffer.

Following the district court’s granting of summary judgment, the plaintiff filed an appeal contending that the district court erred because a reasonable jury could find in his favor on both the elements of a bad faith claim. Bad faith claims under Florida law are made up of two elements: (1) bad faith conduct by the insurer, which (2) causes an excess judgment to be entered against the insured. The Eleventh Circuit opinion emphasizes the critical inquiry in a bad faith action is whether the insurer diligently, and with the same haste and precision as if it were in the insured’s shoes, worked on the insured’s behalf to avoid an excess judgment. Applying a totality of the circumstances analysis, the court was satisfied that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether USAA’s handling of the insured’s claim amounted to bad faith. The appellate decision first looked at the delay in initiating settlement negotiations. The court then points out the delay by USAA in providing information to the plaintiff and his attorney necessary to settle the case. Finally, regarding causation, the court found that a reasonable jury faced with the record could find that USAA caused, or at least contributed substantially, the entry of the excess judgment against the insured. The Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded the decision to the lower court.

Automobile accidents involving trucks and trailers are extremely dangerous. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 4,100 people were killed in large truck crashes last year. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has found that there were more than 500,000 crashes nationwide involving large trucks, with approximately 107,000 resulting in injuries. Big trucks and trailers are much larger than standard passenger vehicles, averaging 20 to 30 times bigger, creating massive crashes when they impact other vehicles. The difference in the size of the vehicles can prevent truck drivers from seeing smaller cars, while also resulting in more severe impact when crashes do occur. Most deaths in large truck crashes are from occupants of passenger vehicles. Of those killed in such accidents, roughly 82% are people in non-truck vehicles.

Florida is no exception to the truck crash trend, with the most common causes of large truck accidents being fatigue, distraction, substance-impaired driving, speeding, and aggressive overtaking. In certain Florida accident cases, punitive damage awards can increase the victim’s compensation significantly. Punitive damages require special permission from the court in addition to evidence that the defendant was grossly negligent or acted with intention or wanton disregard for the safety of others. In Florida, punitive damages are capped at triple the amount of the compensatory damages, resulting in extremely large awards when they are allowed. A recent local news article discussed a fatal Florida double-truck accident between two semi-trucks.

According to the local news article, the Florida Highway Patrol confirmed that there was a crash between two semi-trucks on I-10 at the 138-mile marker. The Florida Highway Patrol stated that a 60-year-old Niceville man stopped his semi-truck rig in the eastbound lane with the emergency flashers on due to a traffic buildup. At that point, a double-trailer UPS semi-truck smashed into the back of the stopped semi-truck in the eastbound lane. The Niceville driver died at the scene, while the UPS driver was taken to the hospital for minor injuries. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the reason for the collision is still unknown and is under investigation by law enforcement.

E-bike accident levels have continued to rise as e-bike usage climbs throughout the nation and Florida. Nationally, the sale of e-bikes has rapidly increased, with roughly 804,000 sold in 2021, up from only about 152,000 in 2016, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. E-bikes are a popular vehicle option for several reasons, including convenience, cost savings on gas, and reduced environmental impact relative to cars.

Unfortunately, e-bikes pose an elevated risk relative to conventional bicycles due to the greater velocity of e-bikes. The greater power and subsequent velocity that riders receive from e-bikes places riders at increased risk of accidents and greater harm resulting from such accidents. In fact, a 2020 study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Injury Prevention, found that riders of e-bikes are more likely to require hospitalization following accidents than riders of manual bicycles. A recent news article detailed a fatal crash between a truck and an e-bike in the Upper Keys.

According to the article, the crash occurred when a truck hit and killed a 59-year-old man on an e-bike was hit by a truck while trying to cross the road near Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada. The Florida Highway Patrol said that the man was traveling north on the east side of U.S. 1 when he collided with a pickup truck driven by a 70-year-old man heading south towards Snake Creek Bridge. Per the law enforcement report, the man on the e-bike entered the southbound lane and into the pickup truck’s path before being struck on the right side. The man riding the e-bike died of his injuries. The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the crash, and charges are pending.

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