There may be a number of potential legal avenues to explore in civil court following a DUI death in Florida. These can include dram shop liability, vicarious liability (of vehicle owner or employer) as well as claims for uninsured/ underinsured motorist coverage. Premises liability, though, isn’t typically one of them. A recent case tested this theory – and won at trial – but was later reversed by the Florida 4th District Court of Appeal.
Plaintiff in this case suffered a terrible tragedy while on vacation for a church retreat in South Florida with his pregnant wife. While sunbathing near the pool cabana, an intoxicated driver recklessly drove her vehicle into the wall of the cabana, collapsing the structure and killing plaintiff’s wife and unborn child, who was 7 months along.
Plaintiff alleged premises liability for negligence in failure to address a potentially dangerous condition on the property (i.e., lack of protective features around the rear of the cabana that abuts a curve around which drivers were known to speed). Jurors at trial returned a verdict finding the hotel’s negligence was a partial cause of death here. Jurors awarded $24 million in total damages, determining the hotel was 15 percent liable and owed $3.6 million to plaintiff. But the 4th DCA ruled the lower court should have granted defense motion for a directed verdict in this matter.
The driver, whose blood-alcohol concentration at the time of the crash was deemed to be three times over the legal limit, was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by 15 years of probation.
Jurors in the civil case against the hotel considered the aerial photographs of the property, noting that the road curves at one point and then travels straight toward the cabana before turning again just before reaching the structure. Plaintiff presented an expert witness specializing in barriers and low-speed crashes who testified that palm trees placed in front of the cabana could have likely prevented the deadly crash. Also introduced as evidence were previous comments from city commissioners about problematic speeding on that road prior to the crash. The hotel did plant trees behind the cabana after the incident.
However, a city commissioner report on the site prior to the crash did indicate that despite problematic speeding on that stretch of road, there were no physical conditions to indicate the road was inherently unsafe. Also, as the appellate court would later note, there was no evidence of prior crashes under similar conditions in that location.
Following the jury’s decision, defendant hotel filed a motion for a directed verdict, arguing plaintiff failed to sustain the burden of proving such an accident on site was reasonably foreseeable. Trial court judge denied this motion, but the appellate court later ruled it should have been granted. Although prior reports had indicated there were potential safety problems for pedestrians crossing the road, there were no indications the road presented a risk to occupants of the cabana or nearby pool.
The appeals court ruled the trial court should have granted the motion for directed verdict in the DUI wrongful death case with regard to negligence because plaintiff had failed to prove there was a duty, breach and proximate cause.
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Riverside Hotel v. Demella, July 19, 2017, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal
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Orlando Car Accident Lawyers: Don’t Reject Uninsured Motorist Coverage, July 23, 2017, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog