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Florida Fifth DCA rules that trial court erred in giving res ipsa loquitur instruction in premises liability case involving allegedly negligent operation of mechanical prison gate

On December 31, 2020, in Orange County, Florida v. Whitehead, No. 5D1901894, the Florida Fifth DCA reversed a judgment for the plaintiff in a premises liability case involving injuries the plaintiff sustained while visiting the Orange County Jail.  The plaintiff is an attorney who was injured when a mechanical interior gate at the jail closed on her unexpectedly while she was visiting a client at the jail.  The Fifth DCA concluded that the trial court erred in reading a res ipsa loquitur instruction to the jury which indicated that the jury could infer that Orange County was negligent if they found that ordinarily the incident would not have happened without negligence and that the subject perimeter gate alleged to have caused injury to the plaintiff was in the exclusive control of Orange County at the time it caused the injury. The Fifth DCA noted that although the plaintiff offered some evidence on how the gate is intended to operate, she presented no expert testimony regarding how the gate worked at the time of the accident, whether a malfunction could cause it to close unexpectedly in the absence of negligence, or whether the County negligently maintained the gate. The Fifth DCA approvingly cited two previous cases involving allegedly defective escalators in which the First and Fourth DCAs concluded that a res ipsa loquitur instruction was inapplicable because the plaintiffs failed to show that show that the escalator would not have unexpectedly stopped but for negligence by the defendants. See Roffman v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 522 So. 2d 31 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987), and Otis Elevator Co. v. Chambliss, 511 So. 2d 412 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987).  The Fifth DCA concluded that because the plaintiff did not establish that the accident would not occur in the ordinary course of events without negligence, she failed to carry the initial burden of establishing that res ipsa loquitur applied. The case was remanded for a new trial.

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