Stacking of Inferences in Florida Personal Injury Cases

Stacking inferences is impermissible in Florida personal injury cases, but a defendant may not frame a single inference as multiple inferences in order to defeat a plaintiff’s claim. In a recent case that illustrates this point, a Florida appellate court considered a single-vehicle accident that happened on a part of Interstate 95 that a construction company was contracted to resurface.

The case arose from an accident at dusk. It had been raining most of the day and was raining at the time of the accident. Another driver witnessed the accident, which started in the far left passing lane. The witness thought the plaintiff’s car, which was traveling in that lane, was going too fast for the rainy weather. The witness saw a sheet of water on the road and saw the car go sideways in the air. When he was cross-examined on this point, he stated he wasn’t sure whether there were puddles. The plaintiff’s car landed in the grass by the right lane.

A few minutes after the accident, a state trooper arrived. The plaintiff was taken to the hospital. Later the trooper testified at a deposition that there was standing water in the far right lane. His report included a diagram, which suggested the plaintiff lost control of the car when it touched standing water.

The defendant construction company hadn’t resurfaced the left or middle lanes by the date of the accident, but it had resurfaced the far right lane. Its expert had the opinion that it hadn’t done anything that changed the water flow from right to left. The plaintiff’s expert opined that the construction company didn’t remove the standing water, which it had been required to do by contract. He also testified that the construction company had not provided adequate drainage and had created a hazard.

The court reasoned that the jury could not find the defendant negligent without stacking three inferences for which there was no evidence, which is improper. The three inferences were (1) a puddle was in the far left lane during the accident, (2) the plaintiff’s car touched it, and (3) the contact caused the accident.

Because there was no direct evidence to support any of the inferences and none of the inferences excluded other reasonable inferences, the court could not rely upon them. The defense’s theory of causation was that the plaintiff’s speed and use of cruise control during rainy weather caused the accident. The trial court believed that this theory was as reasonable as the plaintiff’s theory of causation. It granted summary judgment.

The plaintiff appealed arguing that reasonable inferences are permissible. The appellate court explained that it is permissible to grant summary judgment based on inference stacking. The rule is that a fact can be established as conclusively by circumstantial as by direct evidence.

However, if inferences have to be drawn to prove one fact, the court may not construct another inference on top of that first inference in order to establish another fact, unless the first inference was the only inference possible. A second inference can be admitted into evidence even where it’s based on a first inference, if the first inference has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this case, the court ruled that the construction company had taken one inference (that standing water caused the accident) and tried to argue that it was many inferences. The appellate court explained that if there’s only one inference relating to causation, the party that did not move to summary judgment (the plaintiff) doesn’t have to show that the inference is the only reasonable inference. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed.

If you are seriously hurt because of another driver’s negligence or recklessness, contact the knowledgeable Florida automobile accident attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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