A federal appellate court recently issued an opinion in a Florida premises liability case, requiring the court to interpret a Florida statute. According to the record, the federal government operates an Air Force base, including a public beach with a public shower. A civil employee at the base and his wife filed a lawsuit for injuries the man suffered while using the shower. He alleged that the government allowed an algae film to grow on the shower surface and failed to warn the public of the danger. In response to the lawsuit, the government argued that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and the state’s recreational-use statute, Fla. Stat § 375.251, provided immunity from the lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that he was a business-visitor invitee because he worked at the Air Force base, and the statute did not apply. The lower court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiffs’ appealed.
The FTCA allows the government to be sued if a private person would be liable to the claimant under the law. Further, the state’s recreational use statute protects public outdoor recreation areas against ordinary premises liability. Under the statute, these qualifying owners do not owe a duty of care to keep their area safe for entry or use or to warn persons entering the area. In this case, the government argued that the statute bars the claim because the government is an “owner,” which provides the public access to the beach, an outdoor recreational area. Further, they argued that the plaintiffs were “persons” within the meaning of the state.
In an attempt to overcome the bar, the plaintiffs cited the statute’s subsection, precisely the term “others.” The plaintiffs suggested that the term referred to those invited onto the land for reasons other than business. They assert that there is a distinction between public invitees and business-visitor invitees. In reviewing the plain meaning of the term “others,” the court found that the term clearly and unambiguously refers to “persons.” The court found that even if the plaintiffs were business visitors invitees, which is unclear, the statute does not exempt that category of visitors. The court ultimately affirmed the lower court’s ruling, finding that the government did not waive its sovereign immunity.