Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fourth District On The Retroactive Application of Section 768.0755 (Conflict Certified), Jury Interviews, & Non-Delegable Duty of Care

 In Pembroke Lakes Mall LTD v. McGruder (4D11-4005), the Fourth District affirmed in part, reversed in part, and certified conflict with the Third District’s decision in Kenz v. Miami-Dade County, 116 So. 3d 461 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013). The court “conclude[d] the trial court properly denied the Mall’s motion for directed verdict and the court did not abuse its discretion by denying the motion for mistrial following McGruder’s improper arguments. We also affirm the trial court’s decision to not apply section 768.0755 retroactively, and we certify conflict with the Third District on that issue. We reverse on the issues of the juror interviews and the cross-appeal, and remand for the court to allow Pembroke Lakes and Millard to conduct interviews of the jurors.”

Retroactive Application of Statute

The court first addressed “whether section 768.0755, Florida Statutes (2010), applies retroactively.” In 2001, in a slip and fall case, the Florida Supreme Court held that “all premises owners owe a duty to their invitees to exercise reasonable care to maintain their premises in a safe condition.” Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315, 320 (Fla. 2001). The Fourth District stated that “in 2002, apparently in response to Owens, the Florida Legislature enacted section 768.0710, Florida Statutes (2002), establishing the ‘burden of proof in claims of negligence involving transitory foreign objects or substances against persons or entities in possession or control of business premises.’” However, in 2010, the legislature again amended the statute in a substantial way. "The legislature repealed section 768.0710 and replaced it with section 768.0755, Florida Statutes (2010) and therein provided an effective date of July 1, 2010. In revising the law and repealing section 768.0710, the legislature did not state the new statute should apply retroactively. Section 768.0755 is entitled ‘Premises liability for transitory foreign substances in a business establishment’.”

The issue was whether the 2002 version of the law, or the 2010 version enacted after the alleged incident, would apply to this claim. To determine whether a statute can be applied retroactively:
The Florida Supreme Court has set a two-prong test for determining whether a statute applies retroactively: “‘First, the Court must ascertain whether the Legislature intended for the statute to apply retroactively. Second, if such an intent is clearly expressed, the Court must determine whether retroactive application would violate any constitutional principles.’” Fla. Ins. Guar. Ass’n v. Devon Neighborhood Ass’n, 67 So. 3d 187, 195 (Fla. 2011) (quoting Menendez v. Progressive Express Ins. Co., 35 So. 3d 873, 877 (Fla. 2010)).
“As to the first prong, legislative intent, the legislature gave no indication in section 768.0755 that the statute was to be applied retroactively.” However, “the general rule against retroactive application of statutes does not apply to procedural or remedial changes.” "Thus, the issue is whether section 768.0755 is procedural or substantive. ‘ S]ubstantive law prescribes duties and rights and procedural law concerns the means and methods to apply and enforce those duties and rights.' Alamo Rent-A-Car, Inc. v. Mancusi, 632 So. 2d 1352, 1358 (Fla. 1994) (citation omitted).”

As to this specific change, and contrary to the Third District’s conclusion in Kenz, the court stated that “the shift from 768.0710 to 768.0755 was far more than a simple procedural change to the burden of proof.” The court also “respectfully disagree[d] with the Kenz court’s conclusion that applying section 768.0755 retroactively would not abolish a plaintiff’s cause of action.” Therefore, the statute could not be applied retroactively.and held that “for these reasons, we affirm the trial court’s decision to apply the 2002 statute (section 768.0710) rather than the 2010 law (section 768.0755), and certify conflict with the Third District’s Kenz decision.”

Post-Trial Jury Interviews

The court also addressed the trial court’s denial of a motion to conduct post-trial jury interviews. "Where, as here, the basis of a request for post-trial interviews is the jurors’ alleged nondisclosure of information during voir dire, “the motion should demonstrate entitlement to a new trial under the three-part test” of De La Rosa v. Zequeira, 659 So. 2d 239, 241 (Fla. 1995).” The court stated that:
Applying these principles to the instant case, we must conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to interview the jurors. “Although generally post-verdict juror interviews are disfavored, where there is adequate proof that a juror may have failed to disclose material information on voir dire, a party is entitled to conduct an interview of the juror.” Hillsboro Mgmt., LLC v. Pagono, 112 So. 3d 620, 624 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013).
The court stated that while the disclosure of prior litigation by a juror is always relevant, it is not always material. "Here, the prior litigation was potentially material to this slip and fall litigation. At least one of the jurors, Jorge, was involved in a personal injury protection lawsuit and may have participated in other litigation that was relevant and material to the instant case.” 
After establishing the information was material, the movant was still required to establish that the juror concealed the information and that the concealment was not the fault of the movant. On those issues, the court stated: 
The concealment prong is met when the juror is “squarely asked for” the information and the juror fails to speak the truth…. The concealment prong may be met if the juror fails to respond to questions from either the court or the parties. … The nondisclosure need not be intentional to constitute concealment. Here, the concealment prong was met because the court unambiguously asked the challenged jurors whether they or their families were involved in or had been involved in any litigation apart from divorces, and all four categorically answered that they had not.

Finally, the third prong addresses whether the cause of the failure to elicit the information was due to the fault of the complaining party. If a juror mentions involvement in litigation and the complaining party does not ask follow-up questions, the party cannot then obtain a new trial because of undisclosed information relating to the litigation. … However, if the juror unambiguously denies involvement in prior litigation, counsel need not ask follow-up questions. Here, the jurors categorically answered that they had not been involved in prior litigation, in response to a clear question posed by the court. The parties were entitled to rely on the sacrosanct underpinnings of voir dire. The jurors’ answers and nondisclosures were not due to the fault of Pembroke Lakes or Millard.
Non-Delegable Duty of Care

The final issue addressed in the court’s 16 page opinion relates to “McGruder’s claim that the trial court erred by refusing to hold Pembroke Lakes liable for the negligence attributed to Millard.” The court’s opinion provides more analysis than is included here but, generally, the court held as follows:
Section 768.0710 imposes a non-delegable duty of care on business owners to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition for invitees ….The premises owner cannot avoid liability for the breach of its statutory duty by contracting the maintenance and cleaning function at the [premises] to others. …. When an owner owes a non-delegable duty of care to a plaintiff who obtains a verdict assigning negligence to the owner and a party contracted by the owner, the owner is jointly and severally liable for the negligence attributed to the contracted party. …. Pembroke Lakes raises numerous arguments in opposition to imposing liability against it for the negligence attributed to Millard. We reject each argument
One of the three arguments discussed, and rejected by the court relates to the difference between a non-delegable duty and vicarious liability. Because it is apparently a source of confusion, the court’s clarification is copied below:
Pembroke Lakes’ argument that a finding of agency is required to impose liability against a premises owner for a breach of a non-delegable duty is incorrect. Pembroke Lakes, like many parties and some courts, erroneously conflates the concepts of non-delegable duty and vicarious liability. … Vicarious liability is a form of indirect liability in which a party, who may have not been negligent, can be held liable for the acts of another party. … In contrast, a breach of a non-delegable duty is a form of direct liability, in which a business owner may be liable to the plaintiff for negligently failing to take reasonable efforts to maintain the premises in a safe condition.  


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