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Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 1/22

January 25, 2010

Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 1/22

Subaqueous Services v. Corbin, 1st District. Case No. 1D08-6260.

1st DCA. January 21, 2010.

In the trial court, Timothy Corbin, a commercial fisherman was awarded damages against the Subaqueous Services, a dredging company, after his boat collided with unmarked dredge pipeline. The dredging company appealed on three issues: 1. Whether it was proper for the trial court to admit evidence of prior accidents involving the same pipeline and 2. Whether it was proper to instruct the jury on the “Pennsylvania Rule” and 3. Whether there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict on loss of future earning capacity, future medical expenses, and noneconomic damages.

PRIOR ACCIDENTS

With regard to the admissibility of prior accidents, the trial court held that evidence of one prior accident that took place later on the same date as Plaintiff’s collision with the pipeline. Defendant claimed in its appellate brief that it did not deny the existence of the dangerous condition at trial and therefore, there was no basis to admit evidence on prior accidents. Defendant presented evidence at trial that the Plaintiff’s accident could not have happened at the time and place and in the manner Plaintiff claimed it happened. The 1st DCA held that Evidence of a prior similar accident is admissible to show the existence of a dangerous condition (citations omitted) and that the admissibility of such evidence is well recognized where the defendant denies knowledge or the existence of the condition. The Court held that testimony offered by the Defendant at trial that the pipeline was not just under the surface of the water and floating free from the dredge as Plaintiff had alleged was an argument that the condition was not as dangerous as Plaintiff alleged. Therefore, evidence that another person collided with the same pipeline in the place where Plaintiff claimed the accident occurred was relevant on the issue of whether the dangerous condition existed and was as the Plaintiff testified and was properly admitted by the trial court.  

The Court further held that there were significant parallels in the time, vicinity and circumstances of both accidents, rejecting the Defendant’s argument that the accidents were too dissimilar for the second to be probative of what happened in the first.

PENNSYLVANIA RULE

At the charge conference in the trial court, the Defendant requested an instruction on the “Pennsylvania Rule”, a rule of admiralty that provides that the operator of a vessel who fails to observe a maritime safety regulation has the burden to prove that the violation could not have been a cause of the accident. This rule is based on the case The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125, 136 (1873) which held that the “burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been”). The Plaintiff requested that the Court give the “Pennsylvania Rule” instruction reciprocally and the Defendant objected.   The trial court agreed with the Plaintiff and instructed the jury that: “[i]f you find that either the plaintiff or the defendant violated one of these rules, it is that party’s burden to show by a greater weight of the evidence that the violation of the rule could not have been a legal cause of the damage complained of.

The 1st DCA held that the “Pennsylvania Rule” applies where three elements exist: (1) proof by a preponderance of the evidence of a violation of a statute or regulation imposing a mandatory duty; (2) the statute or regulation involves marine safety or navigation; and (3) the injury suffered is of a nature the statute or regulation was intended to prevent (citations omitted). The Defendant claimed that the Plaintiff had failed to offer evidence that the Defendant violated a maritime safety statute or regulation because those rules apply to vessels and the pipeline was not a vessel and therefore, it was improper for the trial court to give the instruction as to the Defendant.

The Court held that the Plaintiff below only needed to show that the Defendant violated one of the Inland Navigational Rules to warrant an instruction on the Pennsylvania Rule. Citing Inland Navigational Rule 2 which states that: “Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner . . . thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.”

The court held that this rule has been interpreted to require a general standard of due care (citations omitted). The Court held that the Plaintiff offered evidence that the Defendant’s employee allowed a black dredge pipe to float across the main channel and that provided sufficient grounds for giving the “Pennsylvania Rule” instruction reciprocally.

SUFFICIENCY OF DAMAGES EVIDENCE

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff, awarding total damages in the amount of $1,802,302 including $84,600 for future medical expenses, $303,900 for future lost earning capacity, and $1,300,000 for future pain and suffering. The Defendant below filed a motion for new trial claiming the damage awards, except for past medical expenses, were against the manifest weight of the evidence. After a couple of agreed-upon modifications to the damages award, the court denied the motion for new trial. The 1st DCA held that the jury’s award for future loss of earning capacity and future medical expenses were not supported by the evidence, and therefore, it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to deny the Defendant’s motion for new trial on those two issues. With regard to the award for pain and suffering, the Court held that the award was not so large as to lack a reasonable relationship to the evidence and therefore, it was proper for the trial court to deny the motion for new trial on that element of the damages award.

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