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Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 2/15

Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 2/15

Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School, et al. vs. Jose Luis Maynoldi And Olga Maynoldi, Individually, And As Legal Guardians Of Gabriel Maynoldi, 3rd DCA. Case No. 3D08-1648. February 10, 2010.


In the underlying action, the parents of a parochial high school student sued the school after their high school aged son was catastrophically injured in an alcohol-related accident following an “end of the school year” party. On the day before the party, an invitation to the party circulated around the school indicating, among other things, that it was only for students of the school. After learning of the party, the school principle read  “skit” over the school broadcast system in which he suggested that a number of teachers would be coming to the party to make sure the students were not engaging in  improper activities. On the day of the party, the principle stopped by the party, but did not see or speak with the host parents and did not go around to the back of the house where students were drinking alcohol. 

The Plaintiffs’ son and another student obtained alcoholic beverages from a convenience store, drank some of them in the son’s vehicle and took the rest into the party. When they left the party, the vehicle struck a tree, killing the other student who was a passenger and Plaintiffs’ son, who was driving, suffered injuries that caused quadriplegia and brain damage. Blood tests after the accident revealed that the driver’s blood alcohol level was .09. Prior to the accident, the driver had been treated for alcohol abuse. 

The case went to verdict and the jury awarded Plaintiffs $55 million (reduced to about $12 million post trial) on the theory that the school had a duty to supervise the party under the specific fact situation outlined above. According to the 3rd DCA, two case law standards establishing the duty of a school for off-premises activities have been articulated in Florida. First, a school’s on-premises duty of supervision may continue when an off-premises activity is “school sponsored” or “school related.” The second standard is the so called “school related” standard that requires some connection to the school’s academic and extracurricular programs. The court held that the Plaintiffs had failed to prove the school had a duty under either standard in the circumstances presented by the case.

The appellees also assert that the principal and school “undertook” duties that they breached under Florida’s common law “undertaker’s doctrine.” That doctrine is, according to the 3rd DCA, a “well-developed, entrenched aspect of Florida tort law” that essentially follows sections 323, 324, and 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965)(citations omitted), which provides that a party who undertakes to render services must use reasonable care in rendering the service. If the rendering of services increases the risk to the party to whom the services are rendered and that person suffers damages as a result, the “undertaker” of the services is liable. Under the doctrine, the risk can be increased either by affirmative action on the part of the person rendering services or because the rendering of ineffective services prevented someone else from providing effective services. 

The 3rd DCA applied the following 3 part test to the facts in this case:
1. Did the school undertake to render services to [Plaintiff’s son] regarding the off-premises party that the school should have recognized as necessary for his protection? If so,
2. Did the school fail to exercise reasonable care in rendering those services? If so,
3. Did the school’s failure to exercise such care increase the risk of harm to Plaintiffs’ or did they suffer harm because of their reliance on the school’s undertaking?

In this case, the Court held that the incident occurred at a time when the school had not duty to supervise the students, that “mere knowledge of the off-premises party was not a basis for liability” a (citation omitted) and the school did not undertake to render services to the Plaintiffs’ son that the school should have recognized were necessary for his protection.

The Court further held that the principal’s visit at the party did not constitute an undertaking of a special duty to care Plaintiffs’ son and that the son was not under his authority, control, or supervision. Thus, the 3rd DCA reversed the case on the issue of liability.

An additional issue raised on appeal was whether it was proper for the Trial Court to strike the Defendants’ affirmative “alcohol defense” under F.S. Sec. 768.36.  That statute bars a plaintiff’s recovery for injuries if, at the time of the injury, the plaintiff’s blood alcohol level was higher than .08 percent and the influence of the alcohol made the plaintiff more than 50 percent at fault for his or her own harm. The Trial Court had held that F.S. 768.36 was not applicable because the injured son was not the “plaintiff” and struck this defense.  The 3rd DCA held that the statute applies to a personal representative’s derivative claims and the derivative claimant should not acquire greater rights than the decedent (or in this case, the minor) could ever have had. The Court stated that, but for the fact that they were reversing the case on other grounds, they would have remanded it for a new trial that included consideration of the “alcohol defense”.

The final issue taken up by the 3rd DCA was whether it was proper for the Trial Court to exclude evidence relating to Plaintiffs’ son’s recent treatment for alcohol abuse. The Court held that exclusion of this evidence was an abuse of discretion because “[t]he prior treatment and [the son’s] admissions regarding his abuse of alcohol were directly relevant to, and probative of, the specific knowledge of the parents, their level of supervision of [the son], his access to a motor vehicle, and the jury’s allocation of comparative fault” (citations omitted). Again the Court held that, if they had not already reversed on the liability issue, the evidentiary ruling excluding this evidence would also require reversal and remand for a new trial.

Coastal Masonry, Inc. vs. Gutierrez, Case No. 3d09-2063. 3rd DCA. February 10, 2010.

[Torts. Worker’s Compensation]

The Plaintiff below was injured on the job and filed for workers’ compensation benefits from the Defendant, his employer. The Defendant denied the claim for benefits and in the denial stated, in part:

“The present condition of the claimant is not the result of an injury by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of employment”.

As a result of this denial of benefits, the Plaintiff dismissed his workers’ compensation petition and filed a negligence action against the Defendant. In its answer, the Defendant admitted that it had denied the Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim on the basis that the accident and injuries did not arise out of [his] employment and were not covered by workers’ compensation and also denied that Plaintiff was an employee. Despite this admission, the Defendant asserted workers’ compensation immunity as an affirmative defense to the negligence action and filed a motion for summary judgment based on that defense. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion on the basis that the Defendant was not entitled to workers’ compensation immunity as a matter of law.

On appeal, the 3rd DCA
held that although the workers’ compensation scheme is the exclusive remedy for an employee (with a few exceptions), an employer may be equitably estopped from raising the workers’ compensation exclusivity defense if the employer denies the employee’s claim by asserting that the injury did not occur in the course and scope of employment (citations omitted). The Court went on to say that estoppel is a narrow exception to workers’ compensation immunity and is only available when the employer attempts to take inconsistent positions (citations omitted).  The Court indicated that to establish equitable estoppel for purposes of workers’ compensation exclusivity the following must be shown: 

(1) a representation by the party estopped to the party claiming the estoppel as to some material fact, which representation is contrary to the condition of affairs later asserted by the estopped party;
(2) a reliance upon this representation by the party claiming the estoppel; and
(3) a change in the position of the party claiming the estoppel to his detriment, caused by the representation and his reliance thereon.

(Citations omitted). Applying this test to the facts in this case, the 3rd DCA found that, in addition to the Defendant’s representations, the evidence showed that the Plaintiff had relied on those representations to his detriment by dismissing his worker’s compensation claim, incurring medical expenses and filing a negligence action. Thus, the Court held that all elements of the test for equitable estoppel had been met, that the trial court correctly ruled that the Defendant was not entitled to workers’ compensation immunity as a matter of law. 

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