Florida Appeals Court Reverses Trial Court Summary Judgement Decision in Negligence Case

In a recent case, the Third District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a negligence and premises liability action between a plaintiff that was driving, and the defendant, a construction and engineering firm. The suit resulted from an incident where the plaintiff’s vehicle struck a protruding manhole cover while driving through Miami-Dade County. On the date of the accident, the defendant firm was performing roadwork in the area pursuant to a contract with the Florida Department of Transportation. The plaintiff subsequently brought suit against the defendant for negligence and premises liability. Following the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff failed to put forth sufficient evidence that the manhole cover he struck was located in the position he initially described it as.

During the trial, the plaintiff unequivocally testified at least three separate times during his first deposition that the manhole cover was located on West Flagler Street between 16th Avenue and 17th Avenue. During discovery, the plaintiff also produced close-up photographs of the manhole cover, testifying that he took the photographs some time after the accident occurred, though he could not remember exactly when. The photographs depict a manhole cover with a “W” in the center and several white striped circles around the “W.” The plaintiff also testified that he was unsure which of the two westbound lanes he was traveling in when he struck the manhole.

In a second deposition nearly two months later, when the defense counsel presented the plaintiff with a Google Earth photograph of the area where the incident occurred, the plaintiff identified the manhole cover in the right lane as the one he believed was involved in the accident. The manhole cover identified by the plaintiff had dots embedded across the cover and the word “sewer” displayed on it. The Google Earth photograph also showed a water main manhole cover in the left lane with a “W” in a box in the center. The defendant moved for summary judgment arguing that it was not liable to the plaintiff because the manhole cover identified by the plaintiff was different than the one depicted in the close-up photographs taken by him. The plaintiff argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact, precluding summary judgment. Following a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact and that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment as the issue of fact could have a bearing on the outcome of the case under the applicable law. The appellate court found that the trial court did err in relying exclusively on the photographic evidence produced by the defendant while failing to give weight to the plaintiff’s unequivocal testimony regarding the location of the manhole cover in question. The appeals court further found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff’s subsequent identification of two different manhole covers was a mistake, especially given that he stated that he could not recall which of the lanes he was traveling in when he struck the manhole during his first deposition. Subsequently, the appellate court reversed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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