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By: Melissa Santalone
A Florida appellate court recently reaffirmed Florida’s state law prohibition against stacking inferences in personal injury cases with a reversal of a $1.5 million verdict in a slip-and-fall case against Publix. In Publix Super Markets, Inc. v. Bellaiche, 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 4233 (March 28, 2018), the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s denial of a directed verdict to Publix at the trial of a case involving slip-and-fall accident at a Miami-Dade County store, holding that proof of liability via the stacking of inferences is impermissible, in contrast to federal case law.
The plaintiff in the case, a 70-year-old woman, alleged she slipped and fell on water in an aisle at a Publix store that she did not observe before the fall. After she fell, she testified she saw a Publix employee holding a mop nearby, but no evidence was offered that the mop was wet or that water from the mop ever made contact with the ground. The manager of the store testified the employees at the store used dry rayon mops to clean the floors, and not pre-soaked cotton ones. Video evidence also showed the only janitor on duty at the time, the only employee whose duty it was to mop the floors, was using a broom and dust pan just prior to the plaintiff’s fall. The Third DCA noted in its decision that the plaintiff had the burden to prove that Publix either created the dangerous condition that caused her fall or had actual or constructive knowledge of it, an opportunity to correct it, and it failed to do so. At trial, the plaintiff acknowledged she was not proceeding on a constructive knowledge theory, but on the theory that Publix created the dangerous condition or had actual knowledge of the water on the floor via its employee with the mop. The jury sided with the plaintiff at trial and awarded her more than $1.5 million, and the trial court denied Publix’s motion for a directed verdict. In Bellaiche, the Third DCA reversed the lower court’s denial of the motion for directed verdict. The Third DCA held that “[a] jury may not stack inferences to determine that a party had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, nor is the mere possibility of causation sufficient to establish liability. If the only way that a jury can find that a party was negligent is by stacking inferences, ‘then a directed verdict is warranted.’”
In other forums, however, the stacking or pyramiding of inferences is permissible, including in the courts of the Eleventh Circuit, the federal courts in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. In Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321 (1982), the Eleventh Circuit found that “[a]ccording to federal law there is no prohibition against pyramiding inferences; instead all inferences are permissible so long as they are reasonable.” Moreover, in Daniels, the Eleventh Circuit further noted that a directed verdict is not required in instances where the jury may choose between allowable inferences including instances where the inference championed by the plaintiff is no more likely than other possible inferences. The takeaway here is that litigants in personal injury cases must consider the inferences they or their opposition will ask a jury to draw and whether their chosen forum will allow the stacking of inferences to prove liability. In some venues, like in Florida state courts, more concrete proof of liability is required.
If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact Melissa Santalone at [email protected].