On April 9, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court held oral argument on Santiago v. Mauna Loa Investments, LLC, No. SC13-2194 (review granted May 22, 2014), which will require the Court to clarify the scope of a trial court’s review of an allegedly deficient complaint when determining whether to set aside a default judgment.
Anamaria Santiago leased commercial space from Mauna Loa Investments, LLC. Santiago tripped and fell on the property in 2008 and sued Mauna Loa two years later in 2010. Santiago alleged that Mauna owned, maintained and/or controlled the property at the time of her fall. Mauna’s counsel never filed a responsive pleading and the trial court entered a default against Mauna. Mauna moved to set aside the default arguing that it did not own the property on the date of Santiago’s injury. In support of its argument, Mauna noted that in 2011 Santiago sued Iberia, NV, LLC seeking damages for the same injury. In that suit, Santiago alleged that at the time of the accident, Iberia and Antonio Martinez-Marmol owned the property and that the property was conveyed to Mauna three months after the accident. Shortly after the Iberia suit was filed, the trial court consolidated the Iberia case with the Santiago case. After a jury trial on damages, the trial court entered a final judgment against Mauna for over $1 million.
Mauna appealed to the Third District. The Third District vacated the default and the final judgment and dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Court rested its conclusions on two rules of law. First, a default judgment cannot be entered against a defendant when the complaint fails to state a cause of action. And second, a motion to set aside a default requires no showing of excusable neglect when the motion demonstrates that the allegations in the complaint do not entitle the plaintiff to relief. The facts demonstrated that Santiago had no viable claim against Mauna because the special warranty deed attached to the Iberia complaint established that Mauna did not own the property on the date of Santiago’s injury. Santiago also admitted that Iberia owned, controlled and maintained the property at that time. To view the district court decision, which is reported at 122 So. 3d 520 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013), click here.
The Florida Supreme Court accepted review because the district court’s decision conflicted with other Florida decisions. In support of conflict review, Santiago argued that the Third District’s decision ignored several fundamental principles of Florida law and procedure including: (1) a court may not look beyond the four corners of a complaint when determining whether the complaint states a cause of action; (2) in looking beyond the complaint, the Third District ignored that: (a) a plaintiff may plead claims in the alternative, and (b) consolidated actions are not merged so as to incorporate the allegations of one action into the other; and (3) the Third District granted relief based on an argument the appellant failed to argue below and presented for the first time on appeal.
At oral argument, the supreme court was troubled by the Third District’s use of the deed attached to the Iberia complaint to determine that the Santiago complaint failed to state a cause of action. The Court also repeatedly noted that the Third District’s focus on ownership alone to find that no duty existed was “fallacious” because maintenance and control could have given rise to a duty and a single deed is not conclusive proof of property ownership.
This article will be updated once the Court decides this case.