Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 03/12

March 16, 2010

Florida Decision Weekly Wrap-up 03/12

VALLE v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Case No. 08-22117-CV-KING. U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Miami Division. January 14, 2010.

[Torts. Insurance. Bad Faith]

Plaintiff’s decedent was killed in an automobile accident in which seven additional people sustained injuries. The individual responsible for causing the accident had a policy with State Farm with limits of $10,000 per person and $20,000 per accident. State Farm offered to pay policy limits and scheduled a settlement conference with all parties to agree on a division of the policy proceeds. The other seven injured parties agreed to split $10,000 and to allow the plaintiff’s decedent’s estate to take the remaining $10,000. The plaintiff refused the settlement, filed suit against the insured in state court and received a judgment for $3.9 million. The insured then assigned his rights to the Plaintiff who sued State Farm for bad faith failure to settle. State Farm filed a motion for summary judgment. The U.S. District Court found that State Farm had acted reasonably and that no reasonable jury could find otherwise and therefore, granted State Farm’s motion and dismissed the case.

DIETZ, v. SMITHKLINE BEECHAM CORP. Defendant-Appellee. Case No. 09-10167. U. S. Circuit Court for the 11th Circuit. March 5, 2010. (Appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia).

[Torts. Product Liability. Learned Intermediate Doctrine]

The Plaintiff’s decedent, an adult, presented to his family doctor with severe depression and was prescribed the prescription drug Paxil, which is manufactured by the defendant. Eight days later, he committed suicide. Subsequently, the Defendant changed the warnings on Paxil to reflect research showing an increased risk in suicide in adolescents. Plaintiff sued the defendant on strict liability, negligence and warranty theories. The defendant moved for summary judgment. The 11th Circuit granted the motion based on the learned intermediary doctrine. According to that doctrine, a drug manufacturer has a duty to warn doctors, but not their patients, of the dangers involved with their products. The patient’s doctor is considered a “learned intermediary” between the patient and the manufacturer, who is in a better position to warn the patient than the manufacturer (citations omitted).

Under this doctrine, the court determines whether the manufacturer provided the learned intermediary with an adequate warning and, if so, the plaintiff cannot recover (citations omitted). If the warning is found to be inadequate, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the deficient warning proximately caused the alleged injury (citation omitted). The Court held that in cases where, as here, a learned intermediary has actual knowledge of the substance of the alleged warning and would have taken the same course of action even with the information the plaintiff contends should have been provided, the causal link is broken and the plaintiff cannot recover (citations omitted).

COLUMBIA HOSPITAL v. HASSON, et al. Case No. 4D09-3988. 4th DCA. March 10, 2010.

[Torts. Hospital. Discovery. Trade Secrets]

The plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident and received treatment at Columbia Hospital, who was not a party to her lawsuit against the driver of the other vehicle. The Plaintiff requested documents from Columbia Hospital, including the hospital’s different charges for the particular procedure she underwent for different classes of patiens. For example, she sought to find out if the hospital charged different amounts for insured versus uninsured patients and litigation versus non-litigation patients. The hospital moved for a protective order on the basis that the information sought was a trade secret. The trial court ordered the hospital to provide the information. The 4th DCA held that, although the patient had proven the need for the information, the trial court should have stayed discovery until the parties had had an opportunity to negotiate a confidentiality agreement to protect the hospital’s trade secrets.

AVCO ET AL., V. NEFF, ET AL., Case No. 1D09-5548. 1st DCA. March 10, 2010.

[Torts. Wrongful Death. Statutes of Repose]

The plaintiff’s decedent and 3 others were killed when a Cessna aircraft piloted by plaintiff’s decedent crashed. The FAA determined the cause of the crash to be a malfunction in the carburetor. The aircraft was first sold in 1981 and had received an engine overhaul in 1992. 

The defendants, who were the manufacturers of the carburetor and the engine, moved for summary judgment based on the 18 year statute of repose in the General Aviation Revitalization Act 0f 1994 and the 12 year statute of repose under Florida law. The trial court denied the motions on the basis that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding whether the replacement parts in the overhauled carburetor were manufactured or caused to be manufactured by the defendants. The court also found that there was a genuine dispute as to whether the defendants had fraudulently misrepresented or concealed design defects in the carburetor from the FAA. The defendants filed a motion for certiorari review of the trial court’s order.

The First DCA stated that the issue presented was whether the statute of repose in the GARA created immunity from suit or simply a defense to liability. After reviewing a number of conflicting opinions on this issue, the court held that the GARA statute of repose is not a “true” statute of repose or jurisdictional non-claim statute, but was more analogous to a statute of limitations. The court held that the trial court was correct in holding that the 18-year statute of repose in GARA and the 12-year statute of repose in F.S. section 95.031(2)(b) are analogous to statutes of limitations that operate as affirmative defenses rather than creating absolute immunity. Because an error concerning a trial court ruling on an affirmative defense can be corrected on appeal from a final order, the court held that the defendants had failed to demonstrate irreparable harm that cannot be remedied on appeal and therefore, interlocutory review was improper.

FRANCIS v. SCHOOL BOARD OF PALM BEACH COUNTY. Case No. 4D08-3953. 4th DCA March 10, 2010.  

[Torts. Wrongful Death]

The Plaintiff’s decedent, a middle school aged child, was killed by a car while walking across the street to her school bus stop. The child’s designated school bus stop was on the west side of the street, but she had been advised by a school counselor to wait on the opposite side of the street to avoid other students with whom the child had had conflicts at the bus stop and on the school bus. The Plaintiff sued the school board claiming its negligent failure to control the students on the original school bus, negligent instruction that the decedent cross the road to another bus stop, and negligent failure to warn the decedent of the dangers of crossing the road were operational-level actions which are not protected by sovereign immunity.

The school board argued that it did not owe a duty of care to the decedent while she was en route to her bus stop, that its acts were not the proximate cause of her death, and that the school board enjoyed sovereign immunity because its acts were planning-level decisions.

The 4th DCA held that;

1. The broad allegation of a duty to the public does not support a negligence claim because, in a government tort suit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached a common law or statutory duty “owed to the plaintiff individually and not a tort duty owed to the public generally” (citations omitted).

2. A governmental entity that creates a known, dangerous condition which might not be readily apparent, and has knowledge of the presence of people likely to be injured, has a duty to avert the danger or properly warn those who might be injured. However, the school board did not have a duty to warn the deceased in this case because it did not create the busy roadway that constituted the danger and a busy roadway is not so inconspicuous that it virtually constituted a trap.

3. The school board must employ maximum regard for the safety of its students when routing buses, appointing bus drivers, and providing operating equipment, however the decedent was not killed while she was riding her school bus or waiting at her bus stop. Rather, the accident occurred while she was walking to her bus stop and was still under the supervision of her parents.

The 4th DCA stated that it was not necessary to reach the question of whether the school board enjoyed sovereign immunity from suit because, without a duty, there can be no action in negligence. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action.

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