A woman who suffered a serious injury fall from a boat dock at a Florida beach club condominium had already won her premises liability lawsuit against the condo owners, the boat dock repair company and the condominium complex. But the case was again recently before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals to determine whether the condo company could be held jointly and severally liable (legally responsible) to pay for the other defendants’ share of the damages.
In short, the 3rd DCA held yes, they could – or at least part of it.
It comes down to whether the duties a defendant owed to the plaintiff were non-delegable, meaning they can’t be pawned off on another person or entity by contract.
What is joint and several liability?
Joint and several liability is a legal doctrine that allows those who have been injured by another’s negligence to fully recover those damages where full recovery might otherwise be unavailable. Typically, everyone in a Florida injury case is responsible for his or her own portion of damages. That means if there are three defendants, each deemed 33 percent responsible, each should only have to pay their own 33 percent share of the plaintiff’s total damages. But sometimes, at-fault parties don’t have the means to cover damages. Joint and several liability allows a plaintiff to hold one defendant responsible to cover another’s share of the damages.
However, as our Fort Lauderdale injury lawyers can explain, the Florida legislature abolished joint and several liability in Florida in 2006. The push to do so began at least in part with the 1987 Florida Supreme Court ruling in Walt Disney World v. Wood. In that case, plaintiff was injured at a grand prix attraction at the park when her fiance rammed from the rear the vehicle she’d been driving. She filed a lawsuit against Disney, which in turn sought contribution from the fiance. Jurors determined plaintiff was 14 percent comparatively at-fault, her fiance was 85 percent at-fault and Disney was 1 percent at-fault. Her total damages were assessed at $75,000. The court ruled that because of the doctrine of joint and several liability, Disney could be responsible for 86 percent of the damages. Disney appealed, but the verdict was affirmed.
The Florida statute on joint and several liability has been modified numerous times. Today, for the most part, a defendant who is liable is only going to pay his or her own portion of damages. But there are sometimes exceptions. This is what we saw recently in the case of Walters v. Beach Club Villas Condominium, Inc.
Joint Liability in Florida Premises Liability Lawsuit
In the Walters case, plaintiff attended a party hosted by friends who were owners of a beach condo. The portion of the boat dock directly behind her friends’ home was in good condition, but an adjacent portion was not. Plaintiff ended up stepping on a defective portion of the dock, falling and becoming seriously injured.
She sued the property owners, the condo complex and the repair company for premises liability.
In general, property owners/occupiers owe invitees the duty of using reasonable care in maintaining the property in reasonably safe condition and to warn of latent/concealed dangers that are or should be known to the owner that aren’t known to the invitee or cannot be discovered just by exercising due care. These duties are “non-delegable,” meaning one who owes such a duty can’t absolve themselves of it by contracting it out to another party. The condo complex’s duty went even further per the club’s own internal declarations, which adopted significant portions of the Florida Condominium Act, requiring (in part) that condo associations keep up common areas – and the dock was specifically listed as a common area. That declaration, the trial court held, imposed an additional duty on the condo complex – one that couldn’t be delegated out to any other party.
The condo complex argued the fault was on the party hosts for failing to warn plaintiff of the unsafe condition of the dock, contributing to her fall and personal injuries. The dock repair company alleged comparative fault, as well as third parties.
Jurors returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor, finding the beach club 15 percent liable, the dock repair company 25 percent liable and the party hosts 50 percent liable. She herself was deemed 10 percent at-fault. The court, however, declined to impose joint and several liability on the condo complex.
The appellate court reversed with respect to the contractor, but not the party hosts. The court cited several instances of case law wherein the a property owner can be held jointly and severally liable for the negligence attributed to a contractor when the property owner owes a non-delegable duty of care to the plaintiff – even if the contractor was deemed partially or wholly at-fault.
The fact that the condo owner hired a contractor to repair the dock didn’t negate its own nondelegable duty to keep the property in reasonably good condition. Thus, they could be held jointly and severally liable for the contractor’s portion of damages. However, the condo owner would not be liable for the hosts’ portion because they owed a separate duty to warn plaintiff of the possible danger. That makes the condo complex owner and the party hosts joint tortfeasors, but the condo complex couldn’t be held liable for their damages.
Call Fort Lauderdale Probate Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Walters v. Beach Club Villas Condominium, Inc., Feb. 26, 2020, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal
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