Articles Posted in Third-Party Liability

Florida premises liability lawsuits often hinge on the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendants. This is because any duty that a landowner may owe to a plaintiff depends on the relationship between the parties and the reason why the plaintiff is on the defendant’s property. A recent appellate decision from nearby Georgia illustrates how a plaintiff’s inability to prove that a certain relationship exists between herself and the defendants may be fatal to her claim.

Dangerous StairsThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff rented a condo in the defendant’s condominium complex from the condo’s owner. However, the plaintiff did not enter into a formal written lease with the owner of the condo. Instead, the two had an oral agreement.

While the plaintiff was living in the condo, she was bothered by the fact that the staircase leading up to her unit was poorly lit and did not have a handrail. She informed the condominium association that she believed the condition of the stairs was dangerous and requested that the association take action to make the stairs safer. However, the association did nothing.

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In many South Florida auto accident cases, there are actually several parties who can potentially be held responsible for a victim’s injuries. For example, if an employee causes an accident while on the job, both the employee as well as the employer can often be named in a subsequent personal injury lawsuit. The legal doctrine that allows this type of claim against a third party is called vicarious liability.

MotorcycleAs a general rule, under the theory of vicarious liability, when a driver causes an accident while using another person’s car, both the driver as well as the vehicle’s owner may be held liable to the accident victim for any injuries. This general rule stands true to the extent that the person driving the car had permission to use the vehicle, and their use of the vehicle did not exceed the permission given by the car’s owner. A recent Florida appellate court case involving an accident that was caused by a driver who took a car without the permission of the owner illustrates the outer bounds of vicarious liability.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was riding his motorcycle when he was struck by another motorist. The car that struck the plaintiff was owned by a rental car agency and was rented to a woman who was not involved in the accident. There was contradicting evidence regarding how the driver obtained the keys to the car. The driver lived with the woman who rented the car, and he claimed that he took the keys off the kitchen counter. However, the woman claimed that she kept the keys in her locked room and never gave the driver permission to use the vehicle.

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In a recent case, a state appellate court considered whether a company could be held liable after an employee caused an accident in a company car while driving drunk. According to the facts as laid out in the court’s opinion, the employee received permission to use a company car on a weekend to move a mattress into a new home, even though this was a violation of company policy. The employee drank several alcoholic drinks on the day he borrowed the car and then collided with the plaintiff’s car.

Passed Out DrunkThe plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the employee and also brought a claim against the company for negligent entrustment. A trial court first heard the case and granted summary judgment to the company on the negligent entrustment claim. It concluded the employer did not know the employee had a pattern of reckless driving, since the employer only knew the employee had one prior DUI conviction and was not aware he had additional DUI convictions.

The plaintiff appealed the decision. He argued summary judgment was improper because the court should have considered whether the company had a duty to investigate the employee’s driving background more thoroughly. The appeals court agreed. It noted that when the company hired the employee, he listed a 1990 conviction for possession of cocaine, but he omitted multiple prior DUI convictions. However, the employee said he told the company about his history of drugs and alcohol, and he also told the company his license was reinstated in 2010 after it was suspended for a DUI conviction. The company did a background investigation of the employee before hiring him. The investigation showed a clean driving history, but it only showed infractions for the previous three years, and his federal criminal history did not show any convictions.

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The California Court of Appeals recently published an opinion reversing a jury’s verdict in favor of a 14-year-old boy who was injured in a 2012 auto-pedestrian accident involving an instructor employed by the defendant who was driving home from work when the accident occurred. The lawsuit, which was originally filed against both the driver and his employer, alleged that the employer was liable for the injuries caused by the driver because he was acting within the course of his employment when the crash occurred. Although the verdict against the employer was reversed, the pretrial settlement that the plaintiff reached with the driver of the vehicle will remain in effect to help compensate him for the injuries that were suffered in the crash.

ChefTeen Plaintiff Is Struck by Culinary Instructor as He Returns From Work

The plaintiff in the case of Jorge v. Culinary Institute of America was a boy who was 14 years old when he was struck by a vehicle while walking with his girlfriend and suffered serious injuries. The driver of the car that hit the boy was employed as an instructor at a culinary institute that was operated by the defendant, and he was returning to his home after his workday when he injured the plaintiff.

The plaintiff filed an auto-pedestrian accident claim against both the driver and his employer, arguing that the driver was returning from work “in service of the employer” when the accident occurred. After the jury found that the driver was negligent in causing the accident, his auto insurance company negotiated a $30,000 settlement with the plaintiff before the jury determined the total amount of damages to which the teen was entitled. After the partial settlement was reached, the Culinary Institute was the only remaining defendant in the case and was unable to have the claim against them dismissed.

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The Supreme Court of Massachusetts recently released an opinion affirming a district court’s ruling that a plaintiffs’ lawsuit against a restaurant regarding the DUI-related death of their family member could proceed. The defendant had argued that the plaintiffs submitted an insufficient affidavit to make a claim against a provider of alcoholic beverages, but both courts disagreed with the defendant’s arguments, and the case will continue to be heard.

Wine BottlesPlaintiffs’ Family Member Dies after Allegedly Being Served an Excessive Amount of Alcohol by the Defendant

According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, their family member died in a single-car DUI accident after he had spent hours at a restaurant and bar operated by the defendant. The plaintiffs claim that an employee of the defendant repeatedly served the driver alcoholic beverages, knowing that he was extremely intoxicated and that he would be driving home. The claim, made under a state law known as the Dram Shop Act, is allowed against third parties who knowingly serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron who later causes an injury or death while driving drunk. Several states have various forms of dram shop laws, which have been enacted to discourage dangerous serving practices at restaurants and bars across the country.

The Defendant’s Request to Dismiss the Case Is Rejected

Once the plaintiffs’ case was filed, the defendants asked the court to dismiss it, arguing that an affidavit attached to a Dram Shop Act claim must be based on personal knowledge rather than simply information and belief. Both the district court and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that an affidavit based on knowledge and belief is sufficient to prevent the claim from being dismissed, and any irregularities or discrepancies in the facts can be decided by a judge or jury at a later point in the case. Based on the rulings, the plaintiffs’ claim will be allowed to proceed toward a trial or settlement.

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