Florida “Undertaker Doctrine” at Issue in Wrongful Death Case – Sullivan v. Bottling Group LLC

In Sullivan v. Bottling Group LLC, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida explains the “undertaker’s doctrine” and how it applies in Florida negligence and wrongful death cases.

Mr. Sullivan, an employee of Westphalia Technology, was killed in an accident at a Pepsi plant in Tampa. Pepsi had hired the company to repair a vertical lift system used for retrieving stored goods. Sullivan was crushed by the VLS and died of blunt force trauma. Ms. Sullivan, a personal representative for Mr. Sullivan, sued Pepsi and Scott Gorenc, who worked for the company, for wrongful death in state court. She claimed that the company negligently maintained and installed the safety brackets used to secure the VLS.

Pepsi removed the case to federal district court, where it filed a motion to strike the claims against Gorenc, alleging that Sullivan added him as a defendant fraudulently. Specifically, the company claimed that Sullivan included the claims against Gorenc in order to avoid having the case removed to federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2) precludes removal where any defendant is a citizen of the state in which an action is filed. Meanwhile, Sullivan argued that Gorenc could be held liable based on Florida’s “undertaker’s doctrine” because he was involved in repairing the VLS.

The District Court agreed. “When a defendant alleges fraudulent joinder, that defendant bears the heavy burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that there is no possibility the plaintiff can establish a cause of action against the resident defendant,” the court explained, citing Henderson v. Washington National Insurance, a 2006 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The court further advised that a plaintiff need not have a “winning case” in order to avoid fraudulent joinder, but merely one that possibly states a valid claim.

Florida law recognizes the undertaker doctrine in negligence cases, providing that a person who voluntarily undertakes to do an act that if not accomplished with due care might increase the risk of harm to others or might result in harm to others due to their reliance upon the undertaking is liable if he or she fails to take reasonable care.

Here, the court noted that Sullivan claimed that Gorenc was involved in repairing the VLS and violated his duty of care in so doing, which resulted in Mr. Sullivan’s death. Because Gorenc admitted that he aided in the repair and was present when the accident happened, the court said that this was enough to meet the low threshold of stating a claim against him via the undertaker’s doctrine. Thus, the court remanded the case back to the state court where it was originally filed.

The South Florida personal injury lawyers at Anidjar & Levine have significant experience representing clients throughout the region, including in Boca Raton, Hialeah and Coral Springs, in wrongful death and a wide range of other injury actions. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident in Florida, call the firm’s Fort Lauderdale offices at (800) 747-3733, or submit an online “Contact Us” form.

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High Court Says Wife of Husband Who Died After Suit Can Claim Wrongful Death – Capone v. Philip Morris

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Proving Gross Negligence in Florida Worker’s Compensation Cases – Villalta v. Cornn International