I have been reading and studying Florida personal injury cases for the last 25 years, and one of the most interesting things I have found, as a Miami personal injury attorney, is how often a complex case boils down to a single simple question of law; yet a simple case, like a slip and fall at a Tampa Dollar Store, can involve layers of sophisticated and diverse legal principles.
“What are the legal rights of people injured in Florida stores against the actual property owners and management companies of the premises?”
David Sugas was injured in the backroom of a Tampa, Florida Dollar Store when he stepped onto an uneven concrete floor, fell, and hurt his knee. He was working at the time of his fall. The Dollar Store was rented from Terry Tsafatinos, who owned the building and had hired Sigma TAF Management to maintain and manage the building.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Sugas and his wife sued them all (he for personal injury for his knee, she for loss of consortium and services), which then provoked each defendant to sue the other. What are known as third-party complaints, seeking indemnification or reimbursement from each other for any amount they may end up individually owing Mr. and Mrs. Sugas. In other words, as a Miami personal injury attorney, they wanted each defendant to pay them different damages for each claim without having the amounts paid deducted from any amounts received from the other defendant.
Under Florida law, indemnification is a legal remedy when one defendant claims no responsibility for the damages owed and sues another defendant, seeking reimbursement for the entire amount of paid. This is different from the concept of contribution, where the at-fault parties contribute a pro-rata division of liability based upon the amount of fault.
MULTIPLE LEGAL ISSUES INVOLVED
- Worker’s Compensation—Since Mr. Sugas was employed at the time of his injury.
- Landlord-Tenant—Since Dollar rented the premises from Tsafatinos.
- Breach of Contract—As Mr. Tsafatinos contracted with Sigma to maintain his property.
- Personal Injury—Since Mr. Sugas and his wife both claim to have suffered from his fall.
Mr. Tsafatinos claimed in his defense that, as the property owner, he was not responsible; since Mr. Sugas was employed by the Dollar Store at the time of his fall, his claims should be limited to those available under worker’s compensation against Dollar.
In addition, the lease required Dollar to maintain a minimum of $1-million in bodily injury or death insurance, naming Tsafatinos as an additional insured. As it turned out, the Dollar Store had not done so. Tsafatinos then sued the Dollar Store, seeking indemnification and contribution for any amount it may end up owing the Sugases.
At this point it gets even more complicated: The Sugases objected to Tsafatinos’s suing the Dollar Store in a third-party complaint and argued that the Dollar Store owed them only worker’s compensation benefits and, accordingly, Tsafatinos could not sue the Dollar Store for reimbursement of any amount of money they might get under worker’s compensation. The Dollar Store also sought to dismiss Tsafatinos’s law suit against it, claiming that the legal right of contribution as a theory of law that he was seeking was obsolete in Florida and no longer available in negligence cases. And he claimed that if the Sugases had sued Dollar for only worker’s compensation (which, I know as aMiami personal injury attorney, does not require any allegation of negligence), there would have been no basis for Tsafatinos to seek contribution for a claim that Dollar itself was not liable for.
With all these complex issues presented, the trial court simply dismissed Tsafatinos’s complaint with prejudice (meaning he could not file an amended complaint), prompting an appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
APPELLATE COURT OPINION
If an employee is injured at work because of the improper maintenance of the property where he or she works, he or she has the right to sue the property owner for claims outside of worker’s compensation. Likewise, the property owner has the right to turn around and sue the injured employee’s employer for indemnification or reimbursement for any amount that the property owner may end up owing the victim.
In other words, Florida’s worker’s compensation law basically immunizes employers and subcontractors from most claims by employees, but it does not provide any protection from third-party property owners who get sued by the injured employee. In fact, the third party is free to sue the injured employee’s employer for additional claims beyond just reimbursement.
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A TENANT’S LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR AN INJURY?
The court also clarified the law regarding obligations that landlords have in relationship to tenants when someone is injured on their property, stating that liability is not based just upon property ownership, but also on the tenant’s exercising “due care.”
In Florida, as a Miami personal injury attorney, I know tenants have the responsibility to protect others from injury resulting from a dangerous condition because the tenant has possession and control of the property. It gets really technical here: Since Mr. Tsafatinos, by virtue of his own pleadings, was not in possession or control of the property at the time of the accident, the court dismissed his claim against Dollar for indemnity.
BREACH OF CONTRACT
Although the Appellate court reversed the dismissal of Tsafatinos’s breach of contract claim, since it was unclear as to whether or not Dollar had breached its lease in failing to obtain insurance, the court allowed the case to be filed again in a separate action.
This case—while complex because of the intricate laws and different legal theories—is important for both employees and owners of businesses and commercial properties. Those who rent stores, offices, gyms, restaurants, or cafes in Florida—and know or should know that a dangerous condition exists that can place their tenant’s customers or employees at risk for an injury—face potential liability; however, according to this case, if the property owner “completely surrenders possession and control” of the property to the tenant, it may no longer be the owner’s responsibility.
As a Miami personal injury attorney would recommend that both landlord and tenant have their leases and insurance policies reviewed by a competent business lawyer in Florida. Our Miami personal injury law firm works very closely with an excellent and experienced business lawyer in Miami, and I recommend: Craig Dorne, who is also a member of the Attorney Breakfast Club Miami Chapter.
If you or a family member has been injured as a result of slipping, tripping, or falling at a business—such as a bank, 7-11, Starbucks, or fast-food restaurant like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Subway—please Email me, Miami personal injury attorney Spencer Aronfeld, or call our office for a free initial consultation.
We represent people in cases across the State of Florida, including Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Meyers, Orlando, Daytona, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Miami Beach, and throughout the Florida Keys. Call us now at 305-441-0440 or Toll Free at 866-597-4529; we are ready to help you.