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

Worksite accidents happen all the time and occasionally result in very serious injuries. In Villalta v. Cornn International, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals explains the gross negligence standard, an important issue in deciding who may be liable in the event of a work injury.

Mr. Villalta was working as a drywall finisher for L&W Drywall Services on a project on which the company was a subcontractor when he was tragically killed after falling off a scaffold. The personal representative of his estate sued a number of companies for wrongful death, including L&W and Tropic Aire, an HVAC company that was also working as a subcontractor on the project.

Florida law provides that contractors and subcontractors are immune from suit by an employee of another subcontractor for injuries sustained on a construction project, so long as the employee’s company has workers’ compensation insurance for its own employees and the injury was not caused by the other company’s gross negligence.

The representative claimed that Tropic Aire acted with gross negligence by failing to properly cover a “cut-out” in the floor where Villalta was working or warning him of the danger that the “cut-out” presented. The trial court disagreed, however, finding that the representative failed to present evidence of gross negligence. As a result, the court granted summary judgment to Tropic Aire.

Reversing the decision on appeal, the First Circuit said the trial court improperly weighed the evidence. “[T]he line between simple and gross negligence is often uncertain and indistinct, and in such circumstances the question of whether negligence is simple or gross should ordinarily be resolved by the jury,” the court explained. In addition, negligence evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (the representative) at the summary judgment stage, according to the court.

As the First District explained, the gross negligence standard encompasses a variety situations in which there is a “a clear and present danger of serious harm,” a responsible party is or should have been aware of the danger and the party nevertheless acted in “conscious disregard” of the danger.

While both sides presented evidence in favor of their positions, the court noted that the representative’s evidence indicated that it was Tropic Aire who created the “cut-outs” and that applicable safety regulations required that they be covered with painted coverings in order to warn people of the possible danger. Although a superintendant for the main contractor on the project asked Tropic Aire about the coverings, the company failed to ensure that they were in place at the time of the accident, according to the representative’s evidence.

The representative also showed that the accident was caused by the lack of “cut-out” coverings. Specifically, other drywall workers who were present at the time testified that a scaffold wheel got stuck in an uncovered “cut-out” causing it to collapse and sending Villalta crashing to the ground from 16 feet above.

Thus, the court found that the evidence was strong enough to send the question of whether the company was grossly negligent to a jury.

If you or a loved one was recently injured in a worksite accident, contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine today. Our lawyers represent clients throughout South Florida, including in Boca Raton, Hialeah and Pompano Beach, and are dedicated to achieving the maximum possible recovery for clients following an accident.

Related blog posts:

Suing an Employer for Injury on the Job – Gorham v. Zachry Industrial, Inc.

Court Says Miami Subcontractor May Have Been Grossly Negligent in Biscayne Construction Accident Blanco v. Capform

Indemnity in Florida Personal Injury Lawsuits – United Rentals v. Mid-Continent Casualty Company