Proving Gross Negligence in Florida Worksite Accidents – Vallejos v. Lan Cargo S.A.

Injuries at work happen. When they do, there are often a number of different parties that may be responsible. The Fourth District Court of Appeals explains the circumstances under which a third-party may be sued for a worksite accident in Vallejos v. Lan Cargo S.A.

Mr. Vallejos was injured in an accident while working as a forklift operator in a warehouse at Miami International Airport. Vallejos was employed at the time by Professional Aviation Management, a subcontractor that supplied personnel to general contractor Lan Cargo, S.A., which owns the warehouse. Infinity Cargo Services also supplied workers at the warehouse under a separate contract with Lan Cargo.

Pablo Robaina, an Infinity employee, asked Vallejos to move a small dumpster called a “hopper” and dump it in a larger dumpster. Vallejos did not usually perform this job and Robaina didn’t have the necessary security clearance to go to the area where the larger dumpster was stored. “Robaina showed Vallejos how to dump the hopper using a makeshift rope that allowed the operator to dump the hopper from the cab of the forklift so that the operator did not have to exit the forklift,” the Court explained. “The rope did not come attached to the hopper but was added later by employees at the warehouse.”

While dumping the hopper, the rope was caught in one of the forklift’s wheels and Vallejos was thrown from his seat. He’d had the rope wrapped around his hand and wound up injuring it so seriously that four fingers had to be amputated. Vallejos also suffered psychological injury as a result of the accident and was unable to return to work.

After settling a workers’ compensation benefits claim, Vallejos sued Infinity for negligence and gross negligence, among other claims. He alleged that the company wrongly modified the hopper by adding the rope, failed to warn him of the associated dangers and did not properly train him to perform the dumping task.

A trial court granted summary judgment to the company. Under Florida law, 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. Claims for gross negligence are not covered by this rule, but the trial court found Vallejos did not raise a triable gross negligence claim.

The Fourth District agreed on appeal. “Gross negligence requires: 1) circumstances constituting an imminent or clear and present danger amounting to a more than normal or usual peril, 2) knowledge or awareness of the imminent danger on the part of the tortfeasor, and 3) an act or omission that evinces a conscious disregard of the consequences,” the court explained. In this case, the hopper dumping could possibly result in injury, but the court said there was no evidence that injury was probable or most likely. Prior to the accident, workers had been performing the dumping multiple times a day for five years without incident. As a result, the court said there was no reason to believe that Infinity knew of any imminent danger associated with the activity.

Thus, the court said the accident “was nothing more than an accident or simple negligence.”

As a result, the court affirmed judgment for Infinity.

Despite the ruling, it is important to keep in mind that Vallejos was able to recover workers’ compensation benefits for his injuries. 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 Hialeah, Coral Springs 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.

In Order to Recover Damages for Personal Injury, First You Must Know Which Laws Apply – Schippers v. US

In Florida Construction Accident Cases, the Jury Should Consider the Fault of Everyone Involved – Kusherman v. Continental Florida Materials, Inc.