FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY

VOLUME 41, NUMBER 43

CASES FROM THE WEEK OF OCTOBER 28, 2016

SATISFYING THE LONG-ARM JURISDICTION STATUTE DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN THAT A DEFENDANT HAS THE REQUISITE SUFFICIENT MINIMUM CONTACTS TO SATISFY CONSTITUTIONAL DUE PROCESS.

Erie Insurance Exchange v. Larose, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2372 (Fla. 2nd DCA October 19, 2016):

The defendant, Erie, is a Pennsylvania insurance company not licensed to issue insurance policies in Florida.  It had no office in Florida and did not write polices or seek business in Florida. 

In 2013, it issued a policy to a Wisconsin company, providing the insured vehicles would principally be garaged in Wisconsin.  The policy did provide coverage, including UM, for automobile accidents occurring anywhere in the United States and Canada.

One of Erie’s insured vehicles made its way to Florida, and was driven with permission by a Florida resident.  The Florida resident was injured, and sued for UM benefits under the policy. 

The insurance company moved to dismiss.  To meet his evidentiary burden for jurisdiction, the plaintiff filed a sworn memorandum of law, arguing that the company’s failure to pay benefits to him in Florida was a breach of contract “occurring in Florida,” conferring jurisdiction under the long-arm statute, section 48.193(1)(a)(7).  Plaintiff argued the provision in the policy providing coverage for accidents “occurring anywhere in the United States” operated, in essence, as consent to jurisdiction in all states for the purposes of constitutional due process.

While the trial court agreed, the Second District reversed.  The plaintiff did not attempt to establish general jurisdiction to require proof that the insurer had engaged I substantial and not isolated activity within Florida. 

Instead, he relied on specific jurisdiction requiring proof of a causal connection between the plaintiff’s claim and the defendant’s activity in this state.  Specific or “case-linked” jurisdiction depends on an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy.  Plaintiff did properly allege that the company failed to perform acts required by a contract to be performed in this state.

However, the analysis has two prongs.  In addition to the long-arm statute, plaintiff must also demonstrate sufficient minimum contacts with Florida to satisfy constitutional due process.

Because the focus of the due process analysis was solely on the defendant’s connection with the forum state, the unilateral activity of those claiming some relationship with a non-resident defendant was not enough to satisfy the requirement of contact with the forum state.  Here, the insurer was not licensed in Florida, did no business in Florida, had no office in Florida, or never sought to do business in Florida. 

In short, the court found the insurer did no act to purposely avail itself of conducting business in Florida, and the fact that its insured serendipitously permitted the plaintiff, a Florida resident, to drive an insured vehicle in Florida was a unilateral act by the insured that does not provide minimum contacts necessary to support personal jurisdiction over the insurer.  Unlike a bad faith case, where the bad faith handling does demonstrate sufficient minimum contacts to support personal jurisdiction, in this case there was none.

TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN GRANTING MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL EQUATING DEFENDANT’S FAILURE TO FOLLOW ITS OWN SAFETY POLICIES AND PROCEDURES AS A PER SE BREACH OF ITS STANDARD OF CARE.

Wal-Mart v. Wittke, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2381 (Fla. 2nd DCA October 21, 2016):

Plaintiff fell in a Wal-Mart.  After deliberating for one hour, the jury returned a verdict for Wal-Mart.

In granting the new trial, the court found the evidence presented to the jury clearly demonstrated that the plaintiff’s injury was the result of Wal-Mart failing to follow its own safety policies and procedures.  However, this was error.  The court erroneously equated the standard of care with compliance with internal policies and procedures, and effectively determined that a breach of policies and procedures is a per se breach of the standard of care.  A party’s internal rule does not fix the legal standard of care in a negligence action.

When an appellate court has determined that a trial court’s grant of a new trial is premised at least in part on an error of law, then the inquiry becomes whether the trial court would have granted a new trial but for the error of law.  The closer an issue comes to being purely legal in nature, the less discretion a trial judge enjoys in ruling on the new trial motion.

In this instance, the issue presented by the motion for new trial, although couched as being based on the weight of the evidence, was truly a legal issue of the standard of care. 

Moreover, to the extent the court did not rely upon its erroneous conclusion that a violation of internal policies was a per se breach of the standard of care, the trial court clearly abused its discretion in granting a new trial where the manifest weight of the evidence of causation was not at issue.  (i.e., because one witness testified that the plaintiff said it was her fault and she should not have been running in the rain, and the jury also saw video surveillance where the area where the fall occurred had two fans and a large yellow warning cone marking the area of the wet floor).  The court reversed for entry of judgment consistent with the defense verdict.