Supreme Court of Florida
Counterman v. Colorado
Supreme Court of Florida
6/29/23, Justice Couriel
Topics: Statute of Limitation, Statute of Repose, Vicarious Liability
The Supreme Court of Florida resolved an express and direct conflict between the First and Fourth DCA regarding the statute of limitations for a negligence case against a deceased defendant. Section 733.710(1), Fla. Stat. (2013), allows two years to bring such a case, and this case was filed three years after the death, so it was barred.
The First DCA’s 2021 opinion certified conflict with Pezzi v. Brown, 697 So. 2d 883 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997), which had held that section 733.702(4)(b), Florida Statutes (1995), provided an exception to the 2-year statute of limitation where a plaintiff in a negligence action sought money damages from the decedent’s insurer rather than from the decedent himself (or from his estate, his personal representative, or his beneficiaries). The Court found that the brand new opinion extinguishing a plaintiff’s right to a suit was correct and that the precedent that stood for over a quarter century, without ever being amended by the Legislature, was wrong. The First DCA’s holding that section 733.710(1) bars the petitioners from bringing claims based on negligence against an estate beyond the two-year time limit barred this suit alleging that the decedent’s employer was vicariously liable for the decedent’s negligence under both respondeat superior and dangerous instrumentality theories.
The DCA expressly noted that the plaintiff’s had no knowledge that the defendant had died from causes unrelated to the car accident only weeks after the 2014 accident, but that did not result in them excusing the plaintiff’s delay in filing the civil action.
The Supreme Court held that section 733.710 barred the plaintiff’s claims against the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. The statute of repose is two years after death. There are statutory exceptions, but none of them apply. Plaintiffs filed their claims more than two years after the driver’s death.
The court expressly addressed the plaintiff’s argument that the legislature’s failure to correct the 1997 opinion from the Fourth DCA weighed in favor of adopting its interpretation of the law. Ignoring cases that support that argument, the court instead cited different cases and portions of the Florida Constitution that seem to state that, at least when there is no Supreme Court of Florida holding directly on point, legislative inaction in response to a DCA opinion is “irrelevant.”
And in regard to the decedent’s employer, LBC, when a statute of repose bars claims against an agent for negligence, the principal is exonerated from vicarious liability arising solely from that agent’s negligence.
Because an alleged vicariously liable employer and its employee “are in no sense joint tort- feasors,” a party must establish an employee’s liability in a vicarious liability action against the employer. If a party fails to do so, exonerating the employee, “a principal cannot be held liable” either.
Now, here’s the weird wrinkle. Applying this common law rule—the “exoneration rule”—for vicarious liability claims against an employer has always turned on whether the underlying claims against the employee have been “adjudicated on the merits,” and this is the first claim brought regarding this car accident. One would think that it has never been “adjudicated on the merits,” so the employer’s vicarious liability is not barred. But then the Court stated that the “pertinent question” was whether section 733.710, a “jurisdictional statute of nonclaim that automatically bars untimely claims,” constitutes (apparently just by existing) “such an adjudication where the provision bars the petitioners’ claims against” the decedent’s estate. The existence of a statute “constituting” an ADJUDICATION ON THE MERITS is a bizarre reading of the law, but it’s now Florida law. This will apparently apply to statutes of repose that time-bar claims. One wonders if parties can now claim collateral estoppel in a first case against each other since the law simply existing on the books now somehow constitutes an “adjudication on the merits.”
JUSTICE LABARGA wrote a 6-page DISSENT (and JUSTICE SASSO did not participate in the case at all). He agreed that IF the claims against the estate were barred, then the employer could not be held vicariously liable. But he would have followed the Fourth DCA’s interpretation and found an exception to the 2-year statute of repose. He would have held that the term “liable” in section 733.710 refers to pay-money liability, that sections 733.702 and 733.710 do not bar suit against the decedent’s estate, and accordingly that suit may be brought against the employer under a theory of vicarious liability