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Refuting Affirmative Defenses in Motion for Summary Judgment

Posted by David Adelstein on November 10, 2019
Appeal, Burden of Proof / Comments Off on Refuting Affirmative Defenses in Motion for Summary Judgment

When a plaintiff moves for summary judgment, the plaintiff has the burden to negate affirmative defenses.   Failing to address applicable affirmative defenses provides no value because the plaintiff has not done anything to refute the defense or establish its legal insufficiency.  Summary judgment should not be granted if a plaintiff fails to address applicable affirmative defenses.   “‘Where the movant merely denies the affirmative defenses and the affidavit in support of summary judgment only supports the allegations of the complaint and does not address the affirmative defenses, the burden of disproving the affirmative defenses has not been met.’”  Hurchalla v. Homeowners Choice Property & Casualty Ins. Co., Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D257a (Fla. 4th DCA 2019) quoting Stop & Shoppe Mart, Inc. v. Mehdi, 854 So.2d 784, 786 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003).

For example, the case of Hurchalla involved an insurance coverage declaratory relief action where the insurer argued there is no coverage for an underlying action because the policy did not provide coverage for intentional acts.  During the case, the insurer moved for summary judgment, which was denied.  However, the underlying action went to trial and a verdict was entered against the insured based on the insured’s intentional act.  The insurer renewed its motion for summary judgment.  The insured opposed arguing that that the insurer had not negated her affirmative defenses.  The trial court nevertheless granted the insurer’s renewed motion for summary judgment.

The appellate court reversed.   The appellate standard of review of an order granting a motion for summary judgment is de novoHurchalla, supra.  

Here, the insured alleged affirmative defenses and nothing was done by the insurer to address their legal insufficiency or to factually disprove them.  “Where the defendant has raised affirmative defenses, the plaintiff must factually refute them or establish that they are legally insufficient before being entitled to summary judgment in its favor.”  Hurchalla, supra.  This failure to address affirmative defenses resulted in a reversal of the trial court’s granting of the motion for summary judgment.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

Authentication of Photograph at Trial

Posted by David Adelstein on November 03, 2019
Burden of Proof, Evidence / Comments Off on Authentication of Photograph at Trial

A photograph needs to be authenticated at trial just like any other evidence.  A recent decision impacts what can happen if a photograph at trial is NOT properly authenticated.

In City of Miami v. Kho, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2555c (Fla. 3d DCA 2019), a plaintiff slipped and fell on a sidewalk.  The plaintiff claimed she slipped in a difference in elevation of the sidewalk which constituted a dangerous and defective condition that the City of Miami had knowledge of.  The plaintiff could not prove the City had actual knowledge of the difference in elevation of the sidewalk at-issue, so she focused on constructive knowledge.  To do this, the plaintiff introduced a Google Maps photograph.  (The case says Google Maps but perhaps it was a photograph from Google Earth.).   The photograph was years prior to the incident and depicted that the condition of the sidewalk with the elevation differential was in existence for years such that the City should have known about it. 

A photograph from Google Maps or Google Earth is not self-authenticating so it still needs to be properly authenticated.   However, the plaintiff did not present any testimony from anyone with personal knowledge of the sidewalk’s condition as of the date of the photograph.  The plaintiff also did not present any testimony from a Google representative or anyone with knowledge of Google’s photographing system.  The plaintiff simply introduced the photograph through her expert, despite objection from the City, even though the expert also could not authenticate the photograph. 

A jury awarded the plaintiff damages and the City appealed with the primarily appellate issue concerning the admission of the Google photograph into evidence. 

The Third District held there are two ways a photograph can be admitted into evidence:

“There are two methods of authenticating photographic evidence.”  The first is the “pictorial testimony” method, which requires a witness with personal knowledge to testify that the image fairly and accurately depicts a scene.  The second is the “silent witness” method, under which the photograph “may be admitted upon proof of the reliability of the process which produced the tape or photo.”  A trial judge may admit a photograph under the silent witness method after considering the following factors:

(1) evidence establishing the time and date of the photographic evidence;

(2) any evidence of editing or tampering;

(3) the operating condition and capability of the equipment producing the photographic evidence as it relates to the accuracy and reliability of the photographic product;

(4) the procedure employed as it relates to the preparation, testing, operation, and security of the equipment used to produce the photographic product, including the security of the product itself; and

(5) testimony identifying the relevant participants depicted in the photographic evidence.

Kho, supra (internal citations omitted).

Here, the Google photograph at-issue was not authenticated by a person. There was no testimony that the photograph fairly and accurately depicted the condition of the sidewalk as of the date stamp on the photograph.  Also, there was no testimony as to the authentication of the photograph under the silent witness method.  The plaintiff “did not present any evidence as to the operating capabilities or condition of the equipment used by Google Maps. There also was no testimony as to the procedures employed by Google Maps in taking the photograph. Given the lack of evidence as to any of the relevant factors [identified above], the trial court did not make any findings regarding admissibility under the silent witness method.”  Kho, supra

But, here is the harsh outcome of the fact that this Google photograph was not properly authenticated at trial.  The appellate court reversed and remanded with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the City.   Even though the plaintiff obtained a jury verdict at trial, the plaintiff does not get another bite out of the apple to retry her case with proper proof.  The plaintiff “was aware that the City would be contesting the photograph’s admissibility and had ample time to prepare the extrinsic evidence necessary to properly authenticate it. Thus, the City is entitled to judgment in its favor.”   Kho, supra.  Ouch!

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Must be a Meeting of the Minds for there to be a Settlement

Posted by David Adelstein on October 30, 2019
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Must be a Meeting of the Minds for there to be a Settlement

A settlement agreement is governed under the tenets of contract law – there needs to be a meeting of the minds for there to be a settlement.  Ideally, you want this meeting of the minds to be memorialized in writing in a settlement agreement.  However, what if it is not memorialized in a written settlement agreement?

As is true of contracts generally, a settlement agreement is formed “only when one party makes an offer and another party accepts it.”  An acceptance sufficient to create an enforceable agreement “must be (1) absolute and unconditional; (2) identical with the terms of the offer; and (3) in the mode, at the place, and within the time expressly or impliedly stated within the offer.”  This ensures that there is a “meeting of the minds” between the parties on all essential terms. “[W]here it appears that the parties are continuing to negotiate as to essential terms of an agreement, there can be no meeting of the minds.”

Basner v. Bergdoll, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2593a (Fla. 1st DCA 2019) (internal citations omitted).

By way of example, in Basner, an automobile accident occurred. The accident was caused by a vehicle driven by the child of the owners.  The owners’ insurer sent a check to the plaintiffs and a release that required the plaintiffs to release the owners and their child.  The plaintiffs marked up the release because they did not want to release the owners’ child and signed the release, but held onto, and did not cash, the check.  The plaintiffs did not hear back from the insurer and ultimately returned the check and sued the owners and their child. 

The owners moved for summary judgment contenting there was a settlement agreement and they had been released.   The trial court agreed and enforced the release as to the owners.  The appellate court, however, reversed because there was NO meeting of the minds. The plaintiffs marked up the release and, thus, did not agree to the terms the insurer proposed in issuing the check, which was a release of the owners and the owners’ child.  Instead, the plaintiff’s made a counteroffer in marking up the release in agreeing to release only the owners.  When the plaintiffs did not hear back from the owners’ insurer, they returned the check ultimately terminating their counteroffer.  Hence, there was NO meeting of the minds.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Party Recovering Judgment Entitled to Recoverable Costs

Posted by David Adelstein on October 12, 2019
Appeal, Standard of Review / Comments Off on Party Recovering Judgment Entitled to Recoverable Costs

Florida Statute s. 57.041(1) provides, “The party recovering judgment shall recover all his or her legal costs and charges which shall be included in the judgment; but this section does not apply to executors or administrators in actions when they are not liable for costs.” 

Thus, in most cases, when it comes to the recovery of recoverable costs, if you obtain a judgment against the other party, you are entitled to such costs under section 57.041.   There is no analysis as to which party truly prevailed in the case (which is oftentimes the analysis when dealing with attorney’s fees). See Sherman v. Sherman, 2019 WL 4658446, *5 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019) (“Under section 57.041(1), costs should be awarded to the ‘party recovering judgment.’”).  If you recover a judgment in your favor, you should be entitled to recoverable costs. 

When a trial court denies a party’s costs, there is a de novo standard of appellate review.  See Sherman, 2019 WL at *2.  Also, when a party is appealing the excessiveness of the costs awarded to the opposing party that recovers a judgment in its favor, there is a de novo standard of appellate review.  Id.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

 

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Amended Complaints and the “Relation Back” Doctrine

Posted by David Adelstein on October 05, 2019
Appeal, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Amended Complaints and the “Relation Back” Doctrine

There is a doctrine known as the “relation back” doctrine that refers to amended complaints and the statute of limitations.  Assume an original complaint was filed within the applicable statute of limitations.  Assume after the statute of limitations expired, an amended complaint is asserted with new claims.  Do the new claims in the amended complaint RELATE BACK to the original complaint so that the new claims are deemed filed within the statute of limitations? 

The recent opinion in Mitchell v. Applebee’s Services, Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2443a (Fla. 1st DCA 2019) explains Florida’s liberal policy in answering this question:

Whether an amended complaint relates back to the filing of the original complaint for statute of limitations purposes is a question of law subject to de novo review. Caduceus Props., LLC v. Graney, 137 So. 3d 987, 991 (Fla. 2014). As the Florida Supreme Court explained in Caduceus:

Generally, Florida has a judicial policy of freely permitting amendments to the pleadings so that cases may be resolved on the merits, as long as the amendments do not prejudice or disadvantage the opposing party. . . .

Permitting relation back in this context is also consistent with Florida case law holding that [Florida Rule of Civil Procedure] 1.190(c) is to be liberally construed and applied.

Id. at 991-92.

In other words, as long as the initial complaint gives the defendant fair notice of the general factual scenario or factual underpinning of the claim, amendments stating new legal theories can relate back . . . even where the legal theory of recovery has changed or where the original and amended claims require the assertion of different elements.

Mitchell, supra.

The key inquiry to determine whether an amendment relates back or is barred by the statute of limitations is whether the party in question had notice of the litigation during the limitations period under the original pleadings and the amendment merely adjusts the status of an existing party, or the amendment actually introduces a new defendant.Id. quoting HSBC Bank USA, Nat’l Ass’n v. Karzen, 157 So.3d 1089, 1091-92 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015).

When it comes to amended complaints filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations, it is one thing if you are amending a complaint to assert a claim against a new party.  It is another if you are amending a complaint to add claims against existing defendants based on the same transactions and occurrences as the original complaint.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Uneven Floor Level Does Not, in of Itself, Support Premise Liability Claim

Posted by David Adelstein on September 28, 2019
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Uneven Floor Level Does Not, in of Itself, Support Premise Liability Claim

Does an uneven floor level, in of itself, support a premise liability claim?  No!  Uneven floor levels are not so uncommon. 

The case of Contardi v. Fun Town, LLC, dealt with this issue in the context of an uneven floor at a skating rink – the difference between the skating rink floor and building’s subfloor.  A person was injured when exiting the skating rink to the building’s subfloor and, consequently, filed a premise liability lawsuit.   The owner of the skating rink was granted summary judgment and the summary judgment was affirmed on appeal finding that a premise liability claim did not exist as a matter of law.  The appellate court affirmed the summary judgment with an informative discussion as to premise liability claims, particularly in the context of uneven floors:

An owner/occupier of land owes an invitee two duties: (1) to use ordinary care in keeping the premises in a reasonably safe condition; and (2) to give timely warning of latent or concealed perils that are known or should be known by the owner or occupier but that are not known to the invitee or that by the exercise of due care, could not have been known by the invitee.  However, there is no duty to warn an invitee of an obvious danger. This duty does not change from a residential to a commercial context. 

Uneven floor levels in public places, by themselves, do not constitute latent, hidden, and dangerous conditions.  Dim lighting does not transform an otherwise-obvious change in floor elevation into a latent danger.  According to her own deposition testimony, [the plaintiff] had earlier that visit successfully exited the skating rink onto the floor under the same lighting conditions that were present when she fell. Because the uneven floor levels, even in dim lighting, constituted an open and obvious danger, Fun Town [owner of skating rink] had no duty to warn B.C. of the difference in the levels between the rink and the rest of the building floor.

Lastly, while an obvious danger may discharge a landowner’s duty to warn, Fun Town still had a separate duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition. [The plaintiff] did not allege, argue, or present evidence in opposition to Fun Town’s summary judgment motion that the condition of the lip or step where B.C. fell was improperly maintained, in disrepair, or negligently designed. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court properly entered summary judgment in favor of Fun Town.

Contardi, supra (internal citations omitted).

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Improperly Moving to Set Aside the Verdict

Posted by David Adelstein on September 22, 2019
Appeal / Comments Off on Improperly Moving to Set Aside the Verdict

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.480 governs motions for directed verdict and motions to set aside the verdict and to enter judgment pursuant to the directed verdict:

(a) Effect. A party who moves for a directed verdict at the close of the evidence offered by the adverse party may offer evidence in the event the motion is denied without having reserved the right to do so and to the same extent as if the motion had not been made. The denial of a motion for a directed verdict shall not operate to discharge the jury. A motion for a directed verdict shall state the specific grounds therefor. The order directing a verdict is effective without any assent of the jury.

(b) Reservation of Decision on Motion. When a motion for a directed verdict is denied or for any reason is not granted, the court is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion. Within 15 days after the return of a verdict, a party who has timely moved for a directed verdict may serve a motion to set aside the verdict and any judgment entered thereon and to enter judgment in accordance with the motion for a directed verdict. If a verdict was not returned, a party who has timely moved for a directed verdict may serve a motion for judgment in accordance with the motion for a directed verdict within 15 days after discharge of the jury.

(c) Joined with Motion for New Trial. A motion for a new trial may be joined with this motion or a new trial may be requested in the alternative. If a verdict was returned, the court may allow the judgment to stand or may reopen the judgment and either order a new trial or direct the entry of judgment as if the requested verdict had been directed. If no verdict was returned, the court may direct the entry of judgment as if the requested verdict had been directed or may order a new trial.

The recent opinion in TLO South Farms, Inc. v. Heartland Farms, Inc., 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2385a (Fla. 2d DCA 2019), demonstrates what can happen if a defendant improperly moves to set aside a verdict based on a motion for directed verdict.  

In this case, a defendant moved for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case-in-chief.  The court reserved ruling.  Due to the reservation, the defendant put on evidence to support its case.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and the defendant filed a motion per Rule 1.480(b) to set aside the verdict and enter judgment in favor of the defendant per its motion for directed verdict. The defendant, also, per Rule 1.480(c), joined the motion with an alternative motion for a new trial. 

The trial court granted the motion to set aside the verdict and also granted the alternative motion for a new trial subject to the appeal (i.e., if the appellate court reverses the order to set aside the verdict, then the alternative motion for a new trial is granted).   The Second District reversed the trial court in entirety and remanded for the trial court to reinstate the jury’s verdict.  The appellate court’s basis for reversal, discussed below, is important to know.

Setting Aside the Verdict

 

The reason supporting the reversal as to the order to set aside the verdict was because the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict per Rule 1.480(b) was based on an argument the defendant did NOT raise in its motion for directed verdict.  See TLO South Farms, supra (“[T]he trial court erred in granting the defendants’ motion to set aside the verdict and entering judgment in [defendant’s] favor on the FDUTPA [Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act] count based on their newly raised posttrial challenge to the evidence….”).  You cannot raise a new argument posttrial that was not raised in the motion for directed verdict.

Alternative Motion Granting New Trial

 

The trial court granted the alternative motion for new trial based on two issues: (i) the verdict on the Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practice’s Act’s (“FDUTPA”) claim was inconsistent with the verdict on the negligence claim and (ii) the verdict on the FDUTPA claim was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.  

Regarding the first issue, the appellate court held that the defendant waived this argument because it never objected to inconsistent verdicts on the FDUTPA and negligence counts prior to the discharge of the jury.

Regarding the second issue, the appellate court held that a “trial court may order a new trial when the jury’s verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence…[only when] the evidence is clear, obvious, and indisputable.”  TLO South Farms, supra (internal citations and quotations omitted).   The appellate court held the trial record did not support a ruling that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Considerations when Enforcing or Challenging Restrictive Covenant

Posted by David Adelstein on September 08, 2019
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Considerations when Enforcing or Challenging Restrictive Covenant

A restrictive covenant that runs with the land places restrictions on the use of real property.  As a result, “restrictive covenants must be strictly construed in favor of the free and unrestricted use of real property” and, with respect to any ambiguity in the covenant, “must be construed against the party seeking to enforce it.”   Beach Towing Services, Inc. v. Sunset Land Associates, LLC, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2195a (Fla. 3d DCA 2019).  These are important things to remember when enforcing or challenging a restrictive covenant.

For instance, in Beach Towing Services, the plaintiff purchased property that was subject to a restrictive covenant of land.  The restrictive covenant provided that the property “will not be used as a parking lot, storage yard facility or for a garage or tow truck company.

The plaintiff wanted to build a parking garage on the property.  The defendant contended that a parking garage was restricted by the restrictive covenant.  The plaintiff filed a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment claiming ambiguities with the restrictive covenant, specifically with the word “garage.”  The parties did not dispute that the term “parking lot” referred to a surface parking lot as opposed to a parking garage.  The plaintiff was looking for a declaration from the court that the restrictive covenant did not restrict its use to build a parking garage on the property.  The appellate court, affirming the trial court, agreed.

Given the intent and meaning of ALL of the words in the restrictive covenant, the plaintiff could not use the property to conduct the business of activities of a garage company or tow truck company.  Beach Towing Services, supra (“The question thus becomes how to construe the words ‘for a garage or tow truck company,’ since the parties agree that the only dispute in this case is whether the word ‘garage’ as used in the Covenant prohibits Plaintiff from construction of a parking garage on the Property. Applying the series-qualifier, the Court must read the term ‘company’ as modifying both the term ‘garage,’ as well as the term, ‘tow truck,’ and the Covenant must therefore be read to mean that the Property cannot be used for either a ‘garage company’ or a ‘tow truck company.’  Indeed, there is no determiner before the words ‘tow truck’ that would indicate that the term ‘company’ modifies only ‘tow truck’ and not ‘garage’ (i.e., the Covenant does not say ‘for use as a garage or a tow truck company’).  Moreover, when reading the Covenant’s prohibition on a “garage company” in context, as the Court must do, ‘garage company’ is clearly associated with ‘tow truck company.’”) (internal citations omitted).  But, here, the plaintiff was not looking to engage in the business activities of a garage company or tow truck company.  Thus, nothing restricted the use of the property as a parking garage.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Arbitration Provision Involving Non-Florida Entities and a Non-Florida Transaction

Posted by David Adelstein on September 02, 2019
Appeal, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Arbitration Provision Involving Non-Florida Entities and a Non-Florida Transaction

It is permissible for non-Florida persons/entities to agree to arbitration in Florida.  Such arbitration agreement will be enforceable and Florida courts can enforce the arbitration agreement even if the underlying transaction is conducted outside of Florida.

Section 682.18(1) of Florida’s Arbitration Code provides in material part:

The making of an agreement or provision for arbitration subject to this law and providing for arbitration in this state shall, made within or outside this state, confer jurisdiction on the court to enforce the agreement or provision under this law, to enter judgment on an award duly rendered in an arbitration thereunder and to vacate, modify or correct an award rendered thereunder for such cause in the manner provided in this law.

This was at-issue in the opinion, Ancla International, S.A. v. Tribeca Asset Management, Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2189a (Fla. 3d DCA 2019), involving two non-Florida entities dealing with an out-of-country transaction.  Here, a Columbian company (owned by a Florida resident) entered into an agreement with a Panamanian company.  The underlying transaction was to occur in Columbia.  

The agreement contained the following arbitration provision:

SEVENTH. APPLICABLE LAW. This agreement will be governed by the laws of the State of Florida of the United States of America (USA), a jurisdiction accepted by the parties irrespective of the fact that the principal activity of the beer project will be conducted in Colombia. The parties agree that, in the event that differences arise between them as a result of or in relation to the present Agreement, they will attempt to resolve their differences via direct negotiation. For this purpose, the parties will have a period of thirty (30) business days, counting from the date on which either of the parties presents a request in this regard. This term may be extended by mutual agreement for additional thirty-day periods. If a solution is not reached within these stipulated periods, the differences will be submitted to an Arbitration Board, whose ruling with carry the force of law.

Although this provision is perhaps not a model of clarity relative to arbitration, the issue was whether the trial court had personal jurisdiction over the defendant to compel the parties to arbitration.   The parties agreed that personal jurisdiction stemmed from s. 682.18(1) of Florida’s Arbitration Act.  The Third District Court of Appeal held that the trial court had personal jurisdiction over the defendant “[b]ecause the parties accepted the power of Florida courts to enforce the Agreement.”   Ancla International, supra.   Hence, a Florida court could enforce the parties’ agreement to compel the parties to arbitration even though they are non-Florida entities dealing with a non-Florida transaction.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Apex Doctrine to Prevent Deposition of High Ranking Official in Corporate Context

Posted by David Adelstein on September 01, 2019
Discovery / Comments Off on Apex Doctrine to Prevent Deposition of High Ranking Official in Corporate Context

There is a doctrine referred to as the Apex doctrine to prevent the deposition of a high ranking official.  The Apex doctrine stands for the proposition that “[an] agency head should not be subject to deposition, over objection, unless and until the opposing parties have exhausted other discovery and can demonstrate that the agency head is uniquely able to provide relevant information which cannot be obtained from other sources.”  Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Winckler, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2219a (Fla. 1stDCA 2019) (citation omitted).   Stated another way: “[A] party seeking to depose a . . . high-ranking governmental official must demonstrate the personal involvement of the official in a material way or the existence of extraordinary circumstances.” Id. (citations omitted). 

The Apex doctrine has been applied in Florida in the government context, and not in the private corporate context to prevent the deposition of a high ranking corporate officer.   

This issue was subject of a petition for a writ of certiorari in Suzuki Motor Corp.where a plaintiff wanted to depose Mr. Suzuki—the former CEO and current Chairman of the Board of Suzuki Motor Corp.–in Japan based on his involvement in a product liability issue concerning the brakes of a motorcycle due to a letter or memo that had his signature.  The trial court allowed the deposition, notwithstanding objection, prompting the defendant to file a petition for a writ of certiorari.

The First District Court of Appeal denied the petition for writ of certiorari finding that the trial court did not depart from the essential requirements of law “because the apex doctrine [in Florida] has not been adopted in the corporate context.”  Suzuki Motor Corp., supra.  Further, the Court found that the “trial court’s decision that the Chairman’s deposition was reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence provides no basis for us to quash the order below.”  Id

There was a good dissenting opinion in this case that demonstrated that Mr. Suzuki’s deposition may really have been taken for leverage to drive the case to a settlement.  There were other important depositions that were not taken that could have been taken.  There was a three day corporate representative deposition of Suzuki Motor Corp.  Mr. Suzuki provided a sworn declaration that he had no knowledge and did not recall the document.  And, this concerned one document in thousands of documents that were produced.  The dissenting opinion expressed:

To allow meritless discovery depositions of corporate leaders, who have provided sworn statements that they have no discoverable knowledge of the issue at hand, or that such information can be obtained from persons with less corporate responsibilities, is to allow illegitimate disruption in the private sector that is forbidden in the public sector. While the separation of powers certainly compels the application of the apex doctrine in the public sphere, the rationale of the doctrine is equally applicable in the private sphere: the courts cannot countenance unjustified discovery of lead corporate executives for no legitimate reason.

Regardless of how you feel about this deposition, the fact remains that there is a liberal standard with respect to discovery — discovery needs to be reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  In this case, such standard was met.  Will this opinion open the door for parties to make arguments to depose high ranking corporate officials under the argument that the apex doctrine does not apply in the corporate context?  Likely!

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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