188348337_7af825ea03_zOn February 12, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court quashed the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, 96 So.3d 929 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) and held that evidence of lapses in security raised a fact issue for the jury as to whether those failures allowed assailants to more easily gain access to the decedents’ apartments, thus facilitating their murders. The Court reviewed the case based on certified conflict with one of its prior decisions and with a decision of the Third District Court of Appeal.

To read the opinion, here.

In late 2004, two young adults moved into an apartment complex marketed as a “gated community” with a gated front entrance. A year after they moved in, the tenants were shot to death by unknown assailants inside their apartment. While there was no sign of forced entry, cash and other valuables were stolen from the apartment. The plaintiff, as personal representative of the decedents’ estates, sued the property owner alleging that its negligence was the proximate cause of the deaths.

During the trial, evidence revealed that the defendant had a manual providing that a notice to residents was recommended when a “significant crime” occurred on the property, especially a violent crime or forced-entry burglary. No notices were sent to the residents regarding twenty criminal incidents occurring in the three years before the murders. Moreover, there were two criminal incidents where the gate had been broken and perpetrators followed the residents onto the premises. One of these incidents resulted in an armed robbery and the other resulted in an assault. The entrance gate was broken for approximately two months before the murders.

The defendant’s expert, a security consultant, testified that the murders were not foreseeable, as none of the crimes that occurred on the premises in the three years before the murders were violent. The expert opined that the security measures on the premises were more than reasonable and met or exceeded the industry standard for complexes in the location. He further testified that there was no sign of forced entry and that he believed that the door was opened to the person that committed the murders.

The plaintiff’s expert, a criminology expert, testified that most of the crimes at the complex in the three years before the murders were opportunistic in nature and that the murders occurred in the course of a home invasion, an opportunistic crime. He also testified that the defendant’s personnel training video addressed the importance of repairs to mechanical failures, yet the front gate of the apartment complex had been broken for months before the murders. The training video also discussed the need to minimize crime “through awareness.”
The defendant moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the plaintiff had not established proximate cause. The trial court denied the motion. The jury found the defendant 40% comparatively negligent and awarded damages of $4.5 million dollars, apportioned to various survivors of the decedents. The defendant moved for a new trial and the judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court denied.

On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the ruling on the defendant’s motion for directed verdict, stating that “without proof of how the assailants gained entry into the apartment, [the plaintiff] simply could not prove causation.” The Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction to determine whether the Fourth District erred in vacating the jury verdict and entering a directed verdict in the defendant’s favor.

The Court began its analysis by stating that whether or not proximate causation exists is a question of fact, involving an inquiry into whether the defendant’s breach of duty foreseeably and substantially contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries. The Court reiterated plaintiffs alleging negligence must meet “the more likely than not standard of causation.” Moreover, in order for a court to remove the case from the trier of fact and grant a directed verdict, there must be only one reasonable inference from the plaintiff’s evidence. An appellate court reviewing the grant of a directed verdict must view the evidence and all inferences of fact in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and can affirm a directed verdict only where no proper view of the evidence could sustain a verdict in favor of the non-moving party.

The Court found that the plaintiff in the instant case raised a reasonable inference that the defendant’s breach of duty (i.e., the inoperable gate), may have contributed to the incident. Despite the defendant’s argument, and the Fourth District’s apparent conclusion, that the decedents opened the door for their assailants, this is something which should have properly been considered by a jury in a comparative negligence analysis and is not the basis for a directed verdict.

Because the plaintiff presented evidence that could support a finding that the defendant more likely than not substantially contributed to the murders in this case, the Court quashed the Fourth District’s decision granting a directed verdict to the defendant.

Justice Polston wrote a dissenting opinion in which he stated that the Court did not have jurisdiction to review the case.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Stan Wiechers (no changes).