The Fifth District Court of Appeal reached an interesting conclusion in Case No. 5D16-2794 in a Florida wrongful death case involving a corporate pizza chain, its franchisee, and a widow who was not married to the decedent at the time of the accident. The decedent was first injured in a serious car accident after he swerved into the median to avoid another car that pulled in front of him. This move caused his car to drift back over into his lane and flip a couple of times. The driver became a quadriplegic as a result. The other car was driven by a pizza deliveryman. A month after the accident, the injured person filed suit against the driver, the owner of the pizza shop, and the pizza corporation, claiming the driver was negligent and the franchisee and corporation were vicariously liable for the deliveryman’s negligence.
Within a year of the accident, the injured person married his girlfriend, who was a passenger at the time of the accident. Soon after that, he died, and his wife became the personal representative of his estate. She continued with the original action and included a claim for wrongful death damages as the injured person’s surviving spouse. The franchisee settled its part of the claim with the deceased’s spouse for $1 million. The pizza corporation filed many motions for summary judgment that argued the widow was not a surviving spouse under the Wrongful Death Act because she was not married to the decedent at the time of the injury, that it was not vicariously liable because it did not exercise control over the franchisee’s day-to-day operations, and that all but one claim for medical and hospital expenses were barred because no claims had been filed in the probate proceeding. All of the motions but the medical expenses were denied, limiting the surviving spouse to only recover $1,165.67 for the expenses claimed.
At trial, the jury found against the pizza company, finding the franchisee was an agent of the corporation, the driver’s negligence was 90% of the cause of the deceased’s injury and eventual death, and the total expenses for the home renovations necessary to accommodate the deceased’s injuries were over $100,000. The jury also awarded the widow $10 million for loss of companionship and mental pain and suffering as a result of her husband’s death. The company sought a directed verdict and a new trial, arguing the closing argument was improper.
The appellate court addressed each appellate issue in turn. The court looked at the definition of the “survivors” who can recover under the Wrongful Death Act, which include the spouse, children, parents, and any blood relatives and adoptive brothers and sisters who were wholly or partially dependent on the decedent for support or services. The surviving spouse can recover the value of lost support and services and companionship and protection from the date of the injury. The statute does not define whether the spouse should be a spouse at the time of the injury, but the court found the statute still stands as written. The court took the simple definition of a “survivor,” which is anyone who is alive at the time of the death. Therefore, the personal representative and widow could file for damages because she was married to the decedent at the time of his death.
The appellate court declined to consider whether or not the franchisee was an agent for the pizza corporation, thereby keeping the corporation vicariously liable. The court determined this was a question that should be determined by the fact finders, and they did not want to review the evidence and make a decision in their place. The court did consider the closing arguments made on behalf of the widow and the estate. The closing arguments included statements commenting on the corporation’s business practices as a “greedy charade” and insisting the corporation abandoned the delivery driver by not assisting with his defense. There were also statements arguing the trooper employed by the state investigating the accident was a part of the “greedy charade.” The court agreed these were inappropriate and negatively affected the defense by arguing facts not in evidence and giving the forbidden “send a message” charge to the jury. The court also felt the statements related to the damages were inappropriate by suggesting an amount.
The court determined this was enough for the case to be reversed and remanded for a new trial, but it also found that the estate’s cross appeal for medical expenses should be granted and considered at the new trial. The conflict with the Fourth District was certified, with the determinations regarding the definition of the surviving spouse and vicarious liability upheld.
The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston have the experience you need to help you with your serious car accident case. For a free, confidential consultation, call 772-266-555 or 561-299-3999.
More Blog Posts:
Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016
Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016
Florida Court of Appeal Allows Injured Motorist to Pursue Additional PIP Payments to Medical Providers, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2017