Clay Elec. Co-Op., Inc. v. Johnson

Decision Date18 December 2003
Docket Number No. SC01-1955, No. SC01-1956.
Citation873 So.2d 1182
PartiesCLAY ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE, INC., etc., Petitioner, v. Delores JOHNSON, et al., Respondents. Clay Electric Cooperative, Inc., etc., Petitioner, v. Lance, Inc., etc., et al., Respondents.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

William T. Stone of Cole, Stone, Stoudemire & Morgan, Jacksonville, FL, for Petitioner.

Stephen J. Pajcic and Thomas F. Slater of Pajcic & Pajcic, P.A., William A. Bald of Dale, Bald, Showalter & Mercier, P.A., and Dennis R. Schutt of Schutt Humphries, Jacksonville, FL, for Respondents.

Charles T. Wiggins and R. Andrew Kent of Beggs & Lane, LLP, Pensacola, FL, for Gulf Power Company, Amicus Curiae.

Joel D. Eaton of Podhurst, Orseck, Josefsberg, Eaton, Meadow, Olin & Perwin, P.A., Miami, FL, for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, Amicus Curiae.

Timothy C. Conley and David W. McCreadie of Lau, Lane, Pieper, Conley & McCreadie, P.A., Tampa, FL, for Tampa Electric Company and Edison Electric Institute, Amici Curiae.

SHAW, Senior Justice.

We have for review Johnson v. Lance, Inc., 790 So.2d 1144 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (hereinafter "Johnson"), and Lance, Inc. v. Johnson, 790 So.2d 1163 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (hereinafter "Lance"), based on conflict with Martinez v. Florida Power & Light Co., 785 So.2d 1251 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001) (hereinafter "Martinez"), review granted, 819 So.2d 137 (Fla.2002). We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.

I

While fourteen-year-old Dante Johnson was walking to his school bus stop during the early morning darkness on September 4, 1997, he was struck and killed by a truck in an area where a streetlight was inoperative. Dante's grandmother, Delores Johnson, who was Dante's caregiver, came upon the boy's "mangled, bloodied body" at the scene and fainted. She later filed a negligence claim against the following defendants: the truck's driver ("Ganas"), the truck's owner ("Lance"), and the streetlight maintenance company ("Clay Electric"). Dante's estate also filed suit against the same defendants and the two cases were consolidated.

Clay Electric filed an answer to the plaintiffs' complaint and subsequently moved for summary judgment, which was granted:

The undisputed material facts, for purposes of this Order, after all reasonable inferences are resolved in favor of the other parties opposing the pending motion, are as follows:
(A) The decedent, Dante Johnson, was struck by a motor vehicle being driven by Defendant Larry Ganas. The collision occurred while the decedent walked on or near a public street.
(B) The collision occurred during the early morning hours while it remained very dark. The decedent was wearing dark clothing and was walking in the same direction that Defendant Ganas was driving.
(C) Defendant Ganas was alert and operating his vehicle in a prudent manner and his headlights were on and operating properly. His vision was not impaired or obstructed. Despite these facts, he was unable to see the decedent in time to take evasive actions that would have avoided the collision due to the extreme darkness at the site of the collision.
(D) Several years before the subject collision, the Jacksonville Electric Authority had installed lights along the street where the decedent was struck and killed.... Also, several years before the subject collision, Defendant Clay Electric entered into a contract with the Jacksonville Electric Authority which required that Defendant Clay Electric maintain the lights. That contract remained in force at the time of the collision and Defendant Clay Electric had been paid to maintain the lights.
(E) If the lights had been operating properly, Defendant Ganas would have seen the decedent in time to avoid the collision. The light nearest the site of the collision was not illuminated and it had not been illuminated for [some time] prior to the collision. Defendant Clay Electric, although being contractually obligated to maintain the light and having been paid to do so, failed to maintain the light. Defendant Clay Electric never instituted a system to regularly inspect the lights at night or to determine which lights needed replacement bulbs or repairs.
(F) The Court, having read the cases cited by the parties, concludes the Defendant Clay Electric did not have a legally recognized obligation to maintain the subject light for the benefit of the decedent.

Both Johnson and Dante's estate appealed, and Lance filed a separate appeal.

The district court in Johnson addressed Johnson's and the estate's appeal and reversed. The district court in Lance then addressed Lance's appeal and ruled in conformity with Johnson. Clay Electric sought review of both Johnson and Lance based on conflict with Martinez, another streetlight "maintenance" case wherein the district court affirmed the trial court's judgment on the pleadings in favor of the electric company. Martinez sought review. We granted review in Johnson, Lance, and Martinez, consolidated Johnson and Lance, and reviewed Martinez separately. The issue posed in the present cases is whether, for purposes of this summary judgment, Clay Electric owed the plaintiffs a legally recognized duty to use reasonable care in maintaining the streetlights.

II
A

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 sets forth the following criteria governing motions for summary judgment:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(c). A summary judgment deprives a party of his or her right to trial and must be exercised with restraint; any doubts must be resolved in favor of the nonmoving party.1 A trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment posing a pure question of law is subject to de novo review.2

Although the present cases involve an alleged contract between Clay Electric and the Jacksonville Electric Authority ("JEA"), the suits themselves are based on an allegation of negligence and the claims thus sound in tort. Traditionally, a cause of action based on negligence comprises four elements:

1. A duty, or obligation, recognized by the law, requiring the [defendant] to conform to a certain standard of conduct, for the protection of others against unreasonable risks.
2. A failure on the [defendant's] part to conform to the standard required: a breach of the duty....
3. A reasonably close causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury. This is what is commonly known as "legal cause," or "proximate cause," and which includes the notion of cause in fact.
4. Actual loss or damage....

Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts 164-65 (W. Page Keeton ed., 5th ed.1984).

The principle of "duty" is linked to the concept of foreseeability and may arise from four general sources:

(1) legislative enactments or administration regulations; (2) judicial interpretations of such enactments or regulations; (3) other judicial precedent; and (4) a duty arising from the general facts of the case.

McCain v. Fla. Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500, 503 n. 2 (Fla.1992). The present cases fall within the fourth category, i.e., the duty arises "from the general facts of the case." To the extent the parties rely on an alleged contract between Clay Electric and JEA to support the proposition that Clay Electric owed, or did not owe, a legal duty to Dante, the contract itself is but one facet of the general facts of the case.

B

Whenever one undertakes to provide a service to others, whether one does so gratuitously or by contract, the individual who undertakes to provide the service—i.e., the "undertaker"—thereby assumes a duty to act carefully and to not put others at an undue risk of harm.3 This maxim, termed the "undertaker's doctrine," applies to both governmental4 and nongovernmental entities.5 The doctrine further applies not just to parties in privity with one another—i.e., the parties directly involved in an agreement or undertaking— but also to third parties. Florida courts have applied the doctrine to a variety of third-party, contract-based negligence claims and ruled that the defendants could be held liable, notwithstanding a lack of privity.6

Section 324A of the Restatement sets forth the following standard for assessing liability in such cases:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if
(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or
(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or
(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A (1965).

This Court utilized the above standard in Union Park Memorial Chapel v. Hutt, 670 So.2d 64 (Fla.1996), wherein a husband and wife sued a funeral home after the wife was injured in a traffic accident while participating in a funeral procession. The Court determined that the funeral home's actions in supervising the procession implicated both subsections (a) and (c), relating to "increased risk" and "reliance" respectively. The Court then held that, notwithstanding a lack of privity between the plaintiffs and the funeral home, the funeral home owed the plaintiffs a legal duty to act with reasonable care.

III

In the present cases, we conclude that the trial court erred in granting Clay Electric's motion for summary judgment. Viewing the record, the undisputed facts, and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving parties, we hold that the...

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