Via our friend Walter Olsen at Overlawyered.com comes the story of a recent reversal of a case by the Florida Supreme Court.
In our opinion, the implications are staggering.
In 2003, Robert Friedrich was involved in a car accident. Friedrich contacted the Palm Beach law firm of Fetterman and Associates. The firm handles personnel injury and car accident cases. The firm offers a free consultation for prospective clients which led to Friedrich meeting with a law associate in the conference room of Fetterman and Associates.
During the meeting, the chair in which Freidrich was sitting collapsed, causing to Freidrich to fall and strike other pieces of furniture.
After the chair collapse incident, Friedrich complained of worsening headaches and neck pain, severe back pain, extremity numbness, and sleep disturbances. Friedrich was seen by multiple doctors for these symptoms for almost two years. Then in 2006, Friedrich underwent a spinal fusion surgery, which alleviated a majority of the symptoms.
Subsequently, Friedrich sued Fetterman for negligence on the grounds that Friedrich was a business invitee and that Fetterman had negligently failed to warn Friedrich of the chair’s dangerous condition.
(There is some irony in a client walking into a law office looking to sue someone and walking out suing the law firm they were looking to hire.)
In 2009, the case went to trial and Friedrich was awarded $2.2 million dollars for his injuries. The amount damages were spread out between the law firm (32.5%) and the furniture store (67.5%)
During the trial, each side presented an expert on the chairs, which were purchased in 1998. Both experts agreed the “defective” tenon joint that failed on the wooden chair was not visible to the naked eye. However, the plaintiff’s expert testified the law firm should have performed a “flex test” on the joints of the chair every six months or so. When asked by the defendant’s lawyers about the test, the expert said it was impossible to determine when the joint had failed so testing a joint yesterday would not indicate failure of that joint today.
After the verdict, the law firm appealed and the Fourth Circuit Court reversed the verdict saying there was no direct causation between the chair failing and anything the law firm could have done to prevent the failure.
Friedrich appealed to the Florida Supreme Court who overturned the Appeals Court saying the Fourth Circuit had “reweighed” the expert’s testimony in saying that there as no direct causation of the law firms actions (or inactions) which led to the chair failing.
In other words, as there as no direct evidence as to when the joint failed and there was nothing the law firm could have done to prevent the failure of the chair even if they had inspected the chair the day before the incident, there was no link between anything the law firm could have done and the accident.
The Supreme Court disagreed saying:
As stated above, a directed verdict is not proper where there is conflicting evidence regarding causation. Cox, 71 So. 3d at 801. Here, the jury was presented with conflicting testimony as to whether the negligence probably caused the injury and whether the injury would not have occurred but for the negligence. Evidence was presented that could serve as a basis to support a finding that the defendant’s negligence caused the injury, i.e., Friedrich’s expert testified that a hands on inspection should have revealed the defect.
However, Justice C. J. Polston dissented saying in part:
Although the majority states that Friedrich’s expert testified that “a ‘hands on inspection of the chair before the accident should have found’ the ‘weak joint’ in the rear, right side of the chair,” the majority fails to mention that this same expert explained on cross examination that he had no opinion as to how quickly the failure in the chair joint occurred and that the weakened condition could have manifested in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, days, or weeks prior to the accident. See majority op. at 8 – 9. Further, this expert conceded that the defect may not have been detectable by an inspection until just before the collapse and offered “no time frame concerning how long before the accident such testing would have been effective.”
It seems impossible to hold anyone accountable for inspecting a chair prior to each time it is used, but that is the standard the Supreme Court seems to have applied.
In that the failure of the joint in this case was not visible, we cannot see the same standard being applied to a metal framed chair as well. After all, breaks in welds are difficult to see with the naked eye if that weld is on the interior of the chair.
As best we can figure, if this is the standard for “reasonable care” when it comes to office chairs, then every office will have to hire people to inspect every chair each time a visitor or employee sits down.
After that, the “NAOFI” (National Association of Office Furniture Inspectors) will form, lobbying the legislature for standards in training and certification for chair inspectors.
(Don’t get us started on standards on file cabinet weight distribution.)
It will be a boondoggle for everyone except for those who actually have to pay for it.
Wonder how much the job of “chair inspector” will pay?