Improper Exclusion of Evidence Leads to New Trial
In regards to evidence, the trial court holds the keys and determines what qualifies as admissible evidence and what needs to be excluded from trial, pursuant to the Florida Evidence Code. However, a trial court does not have the authority to contort the purposes of regulations such as the Florida Accessibility Code in an attempt to exclude evidence and remove a plaintiff’s right to a jury trial, according to the recent holding in Krueger v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., MPN, LLC and Bruce Strumpf, Inc., Case No. 2D18-3823 (Fla. 2d DCA September 13, 2019).
The instant case revolves around the question of premise liability. Mr. Krueger, an elderly handicapped man, suffered injury while leaving Quest Diagnostics. He was walking to his vehicle that was parked in a handicapped designated space when he fell near a curb in front of Quest Diagnostics. Mr. Krueger filed a law suit claiming that Quest Diagnostics along with the owner and managing company negligently maintained the strip mall parking lot by not providing a suitable curb “cut” that would have allowed him a sufficiently direct access to and from the storefront from the handicapped parking area. Mr. Krueger based his case on the Florida Accessibility Code for Building Construction that requires a minimal distance between a handicapped parking space and an accessible entrance to Quest Diagnostics via the shortest accessible route. In support of his action, Mr. Krueger retained an architect as an expert witness to testify that the parking lot and curb in front of Quest Diagnostics did not follow the building code due to the impediment of a step between the storefront and the handicapped parking area.
The trial court decided to interpret the purpose of the Florida Accessibility Code, stating that even though it is part of the Florida Building Code, it is merely an accessibility code rather than a safety code. The court then excluded all of the expert witness’s testimony, removing Mr. Krueger’s support of his action. This led to a directed verdict in favor of the defendant and improperly removed the question from the jury.
The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the final judgment in favor of the Defendant advising that the trial court improperly characterized the Florida Accessibility Code as merely an accessibility code. Further, the District Court advised that in a premises liability action, the jury may consider building code provisions in determining whether a defendant complied with a common law duty of care. The trial court’s error was its attempt to apply a legal distinction between a safety verses accessibility code to statutes that did not carry such a purpose. Even though the statute cited addresses accessibility, it also promotes safety for the disabled.
The trial court’s exclusion of expert testimony prevented the jury from determining whether the defendant violated its duty of care to its handicapped patron. The trial court cannot find a lack of duty if a foreseeable zone of risk more likely than not was created by the defendant, here by violating the Florida Accessibility Code. Therefore, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the final judgment in favor of defendant and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.