Articles Posted in premises liability

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Could it be that a false sense of security is worse than no security at all? Two siblings who moved into a “gated community” surrounded by water, walls, and fences in 2004 assumed that they were safe from murderers and thieves. After all, the apartment complex claimed to provide reasonable lighting, locks, and peepholes, and the apartments had alarm systems. Unfortunately, the siblings were far from safe.

According to the personal representative’s appellate brief in the case of Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, the siblings were murdered in 2005 while living at the Gatehouse on the Greens apartment complex located in Plantation, Florida. The complex consisted of over 300 apartments located in a dozen buildings. In all, it was home to approximately 1,000 residents.

Proceedings in the Trial Court

The lawsuit filed against the owner of the complex by the siblings’ personal representative alleged that the siblings’ death was caused by the complex’s negligent failure to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition. Specifically, the personal representative claimed that the complex did not maintain the front gate, failed to have adequate security, did not prevent dangerous persons from gaining access to the premises, and failed to protect and warn residents of dangerous conditions and criminal acts.

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boat2If you or a loved one has been injured due to another party’s negligence, you may be surprised to know that, in most cases arising under Florida law, you do not have a legal right to sue the responsible party’s insurance company directly. This is true even if you were contacted soon after the accident by a representative of the insurance company and have never even spoken directly with the person or business that caused your injury.

The rationale for the “nonjoinder statute,” as it is called by the courts, is that a jury should not be told whether a defendant has liability insurance because an award of damages would be more likely if the jury knows that an insurance company (rather than the negligent party) would actually be writing the check at the end of the day. In the recent case of Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. v. Morris, the plaintiff attempted to find a way around this general rule by asserting a breach of contract claim, rather than a negligence action, against the insurance company under a medical payment provision.
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Waiting the brideIf you are asked to sign a release before engaging in a particular activity, you need to ask yourself whether you are truly willing to waive, in advance, any claims you may have against the party asking you to sign the release. Unfortunately, many people sign such documents without giving a second thought to their actual significance under the law. This can be a huge mistake. The case of Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc. illustrates the point.

The defendant was a non-profit organization that provided seriously ill children and their families with vacations at a resort village. The plaintiffs were parents who applied for a vacation for their child. During the request process, the parents signed a form that purported to release the defendant from “any liability for any potential cause of action.” The defendant approved the parents’ request. When the family arrived at the resort (located in Kissimmee, Florida), the plaintiffs again signed a liability release form. Neither release specifically said that the plaintiffs were waiving any negligence claims that might arise.

During their time at the defendant’s village, the family participated in a wagon ride. The wagon had a lift in the back for the benefit of persons confined to wheelchairs. While on a ride in the wagon, the family stepped onto the lift to pose for a picture. The lift collapsed, and the mother injured her hip and back. The plaintiffs filed suit in the Circuit Court for Osceola County, asserting a negligence claim against the organization. In response, the organization asserted that it was entitled to an affirmative defense due to the release signed by the plaintiffs. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment on the issue of the release. The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and the matter proceeded to trial. The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them damages. Continue reading →

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802348_69751285.jpgA dispute over insurance coverage has developed between a Florida homeowners’ association (HOA) and its insurer after the mother of slain 17 year-old Trayvon Martin claimed compensation for the death of her son. Martin was shot and killed by a resident in the neighborhood represented by the HOA. The insurance company filed a declaratory action in an Orlando federal court asking the court to declare that it is not responsible for covering the HOA on the mother’s claim.

The Trayvon Martin case has become well-known and highly controversial. Martin was visiting his father, who lived in a gated community in Sanford. The teenager was allegedly walking home from the store on the night of February 26, 2012, when he was shot and killed by 28 year-old George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed that he acted in self-defense. Martin’s family says that Zimmerman singled their son out because he was African-American, followed him through the neighborhood, and incited an altercation. Police arrested Zimmerman forty-four days after Martin’s death and charged him with second-degree murder. Zimmerman has entered a plea of not guilty and is out of jail with a $1 million bond.

Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, filed a claim with Travelers Insurance, which covers the Retreat at Twin Lakes HOA. She requested in excess of $75,000 in damages for Martin’s death. She also filed a claim with the Florida Bureau of Victim Compensation, and was approved in March for a payment from the Crimes Compensation Trust Fund. Her claim to Travelers drew a quick response.

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Last year, I wrote about the very sad drowning death of a two-year-old boy who wandered into an apparently unsafe backyard near his home. Isaac Dieudonne, 2, walked out the front door of his new home and into the pool area of the next-door neighbor’s home, which was vacant. At least two gates leading to the pool were reportedly open, despite laws requiring self-latching gates intended to prevent this type of accident. At the time, the case attracted my attention because of speculation that the home was vacant due to foreclosure. On Oct. 29 of this year, that speculation was confirmed by a McClatchy article about the Dieudonne family’s struggle to hold someone responsible for Isaac’s death. Because the home is in foreclosure, it isn’t clear whether the mortgage holder, mortgage servicer or maintenance company should be responsible.

According to the article, the Dieudonnes’ Miramar premises liability attorney wasn’t even sure who owned the property at first. The title had changed hands several times; some documents were fraudulent or had serious errors; and was at one point being foreclosed on in two cases at the same time. As a result, the family has named 20 defendants in the case, including owners, servicers, maintenance companies and a company that was holding the title for an owner. Some of the defendants claim they didn’t own the property at the time of Isaac’s death. All of this has already complicated the case, with an unnecessary move to federal court, and with 20 corporate defendants, more delays are likely. The Dieudonnes claim that neither the side gate to the home’s backyard nor the gate into the pool were fitted with self-closing spring locks, as required by Miramar city code — and that they’re still unsafe today.

Unfortunately, drowning in swimming pools is a well known risk for toddlers and young children, which is exactly why cities have laws about self-latching gates. Under normal circumstances, a property owner’s failure to follow those laws can expose him or her to a premises liability lawsuit like the one the Dieudonnes are pursuing. Florida law gives everyone who owns or operates a property a legal obligation to ensure that the property is safe. This includes protections against foreseeable dangers, including the danger that a small child could get into a swimming pool without supervision. In my experience as a Lauderhill premises liability lawyer, handling this in a private home is usually a matter of handling the homeowners’ insurance company. But when it’s not even clear who owns the property, the entire process gets dragged out — and the family’s suffering unfortunately gets dragged out along with it.

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As a Lake Worth premises liability attorney, I’ve written here before about the suspected “cancer cluster” at the Palm Beach County community of The Acreage. After an abnormally large number of children in the community were diagnosed with brain cancer, the community began pushing for tests to confirm suspicions that radiation may have contaminated the area’s groundwater. A previous test from the state found radiation in 10% of randomly selected wells in the community, and a New York City toxic tort law firm has also conducted tests finding radiation in homes. According to a Jan. 10 Sun-Sentinel article, the Palm Beach County Department of Health also plans tests to look for radon in homes where children lived when they were diagnosed with cancer.

The Health Department has been investigating the suspected cancer cluster since the summer of 2009 and has not yet concluded that rates of cancer there are unusually high. However, the tests for radon are cheap and easy to conduct, a spokesman said. The county plans to end its interviews with families in the next few weeks, at which time it will start the testing. The results will be presented at a community meeting about the problem in February. Radon gas is a by-product created when the radioactive chemical element radium decays. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless, making it difficult for humans to detect — but it’s also a known carcinogen. Some Acreage residents believe the radiation could be the result of toxic spills from a nearby plant for rocket developer Pratt & Whitney, which later became a Superfund site.

As a toxic contamination site lawyer in Plantation, I will be very interested in the results of this study. Human beings knew radon caused sickness among miners as early as the sixteenth century, and federal agencies suggest immediate action when radon levels in a home or workplace exceed guidelines. If testing can identify radon as the source of the problem, homeowners can take that action as soon as possible to protect themselves and their families. Testing may also help investigators determine the source of the contamination, an extremely important issue for residents who are considering legal action. If radioactive contamination from the Pratt & Whitney plant is the problem, that company, real estate developers for The Acreage and government agencies may all be held legally liable for failing to warn residents about the risk of radioactive exposure.

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As an Aventura injuries to minors attorney, I have written several times about the dangers to young children from unattended swimming pools. I am sorry to say that the city of Delray Beach saw another such accident Dec. 29. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a three-year-old boy and a boy and a girl, both two, somehow got into a neighbor’s backyard around 5:30 p.m. as they were visiting a family friend. One of the boys was hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday, while the other children were in stable condition. Delray Beach police are investigating how the accident occurred.

The boys are brothers and the girl is their cousin, according to family friend Manette Joseph. Both of their mothers were visiting Joseph’s home while Joseph was working that day. It was unclear whether an adult was watching them when they were outside, but a neighbor, Matilda Corona, had warned the children and a teenager to stay away from her own pool earlier in the day. When the children were found in another neighbor’s pool, Corona’s daughter-in-law, a nursing student, was called to perform CPR. Because the pool was murky and dirty, a Fire-Rescue dive team was called to ensure that there were no more children in it.

The nursing student told the Sun-Sentinel that she didn’t see a screen around the pool. If so, it suggests that the unnamed neighbor may have violated Florida law by failing to erect a fence sufficient to keep small children out. Swimming pools are a leading cause of accidental drowning in toddlers, taking the lives of about 300 children under five each year. For that reason, state law requires owners of new swimming pools to erect a fence around their pools high and secure enough to keep young children out. Failure to follow this law can result in a criminal charge, as well as clear liability in any West Palm Beach child injury lawsuit. This is entirely separate from the issue of whether the children were adequately supervised by adult family members. If they were not, both parties would be at fault and any financial recovery for the family would be reduced accordingly.

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As a Pompano Beach premises liability attorney, I was very interested in a recent report about an outbreak caused by contaminated water at an upscale Miami hotel. The Miami Herald reported Dec. 13 that bacteria in the water at the Epic Hotel is believed responsible for one death among the guests and two other cases of illness. All three victims contracted a rare form of pneumonia called Legionellosis, or Legionnaires’ disease, which is generally transmitted by breathing water vapors infected with the Legionella family of bacteria. Authorities say that the three victims represent only a fraction of all of the guests the hotel had seen over the past two months, but about 300 guests still asked to be moved to other hotels.

The problem was uncovered by a joint investigation between Florida state health officials and the Miami-Dade County Health Department. The investigators put the blame on the hotel’s powerful new water filter — which, ironically, was intended to improve the quality of the drinking water. The filter was so powerful that it removed the chlorine from ordinary Miami city tap water, allowing bacteria to grow. The result was three known cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the past two months, affecting unrelated European tourists. The first victim, a man, visited the hotel on the way to a cruise ship, where he became ill. He was rushed back to the mainland for treatment, but died. The other two victims were a man sickened in late November and a woman who fell ill this month. The article did not mention whether they have recovered. Poor international communication prevented authorities from discovering the connections earlier, county officials said.

The article says that the hotel is working with the county to fix the problem, by bypassing the water filter and temporarily tripling the chlorine in the hotel’s supply. But as a Hallandale Beach dangerous premises lawyer, I wonder whether careful investigation beforehand would have revealed that the water filter was removing necessary safeguards from the hotel’s water supply. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionella bacteria are common in the environment and especially likely to be passed on at hotels. Like many bacteria, they thrive in the warmer temperatures common in South Florida. Chlorinated drinking water may taste bad, but it’s also specifically intended to inhibit growth of microbes in the public water supply. All of these facts suggest that the hotel should have at least considered the chance of contamination before filtering out the chlorine.

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As a Miramar premises liability attorney, I was interested to see a report about a major incident at Walt Disney World that left about 300 people stuck in cars high above the ground. The Orlando Sentinel reported Dec. 14 that a hard drive failed in the computer system that runs the monorails at around 1 a.m. early on Sunday, Dec. 13. The computer problem cut off power to seven monorail cars, three of which were out of the station with people inside. No injuries were reported, but the Reedy Creek Fire Department used ladders to rescue guests from the high monorail tracks, which a Disney spokesperson said was motivated by customer service concerns. The trains began running again around 4 a.m. and were operational when the park opened Sunday.

It was the third incident involving monorail service at the Magic Kingdom this year. In July, a Disney employee was killed when two of the trains crashed. In the fall, an electrical short shut down parts of the system in an incident that affected 25 people but did not result in any injuries. While nobody was hurt in this latest incident, several park visitors wrote in to television station Central Florida News 13 complaining about the way Disney handled the incident. Because the power was out, there was no air conditioning, they wrote, leaving it hot and muggy inside. One passenger said her driver said not to open the emergency windows in case the glass fell out and onto people below. She also complained that the driver misled her car, saying at first that they were waiting for clearance, and then that they were experiencing minor technical difficulties. Another Disney visitor wrote in to say that his train had a power outage earlier in the day, which stranded him for about 45 minutes.

I am pleased that nobody was seriously hurt, even though the experience sounds hot and stressful and probably kept a lot of kids up past their bedtimes. As a Hollywood premises liability lawyer, I can think of a few ways in which someone could have been injured by the experience. Simply being stuck in a small, hot, humid place for three hours could cause problems for people with certain health conditions, such as people with heart problems or time-sensitive medications. Incorrect instructions, or failure to control an angry crowd, could also lead to injuries from people climbing out of the car or getting involved in fights. Just as Disney has a responsibility to make sure its rides and grounds are safe, it also has a responsibility to prevent incidents that it can reasonably anticipate, which may include problems with out-of-control guests. Failure to do that could lead to a tragedy and expose Disney to a premises liability lawsuit.

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Last month, I wrote on this blog about a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy who suffered burns over about 60% of his body after the gas pump he was using simply exploded. Sgt. Richard Ragali was badly burned Oct. 2 during a motorcycle ride to the Florida Keys with a group of friends. When they pulled into a gas station in Marathon, Ragali’s Harley slipped in a puddle of gas, triggering an explosion and pinning him underneath the bike. Ragali has been hospitalized at Jackson Memorial Hospital ever since. According to a Nov. 14 article from KeysNet.com, he and his family are suing the gas station and its parent companies for failing to take care of the gas spill and prevent the accident.

Ragali’s lawsuit, filed last week in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, names Circle K, Shell Oil, Circle K store number 2386 and Motica Enterprises LLC as defendants. According to television station WPBF, the suit alleges that the store’s owners had been warned several times over the preceding weeks that there was a gas puddle at the pump. Nonetheless, they negligently failed to take action, the complaint charges. Ragali is seeking damages for his medical bills, lost past and future earnings, injuries, pain, suffering, permanent disfigurement and loss of enjoyment of life. His sons, 16-year-old Joshua and 20-year-old Joseph, are claiming the loss of their father’s services, support, guidance and other care. Their family’s West Palm Beach premises liability attorney said they’ve been living with their mother, who is divorced from Ragali, since the accident.

I was also sobered to read about some of the serious consequences of Ragali’s burn injuries. KeysNet reported that he is in a specialized burn unit, where he has received multiple skin grafts and is undergoing physical therapy. The family’s attorney said Ragali recently took 20 steps — a big deal for his family. As a Lauderhill burn injury attorney, I’m sorry to say that this is not unusual for someone who was so severely burned. In addition to being unpleasant to look at, the inflexible scar tissue from a bad burn can also restrict the victim’s movements if not prevented, corrected or both. Victims typically need long-term physical therapy, care from a burn specialist or dermatologist and sometimes surgeries. Not surprisingly, all this medical care can be very expensive. For someone as badly burned as Ragali, medical costs can easily reach seven figures over a lifetime.

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