Marriott International, Inc. v. Perez-Melendez

Citation855 So.2d 624
Decision Date25 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 5D02-1624.,5D02-1624.
PartiesMARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL, INC., Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. Zaria PEREZ-MELENDEZ, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)

Opinion Denying Rehearing, Clarification and Certification September 26, 2003.

Marie A. Borland of Hill, Ward & Henderson, P.A., Tampa and John H. Ward of Brown, Ward, Salzman & Weiss, Orlando, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Elizabeth H. Faiella of Elizabeth H. Faiella, P.A., Winter Park and Marcia K. Lippincott of Marcia K. Lippincott, P.A., Lake Mary, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

SAWAYA, C.J.

Marriott International, Inc., (Marriott) appeals a final judgment entered in favor of Zaira Perez-Melendez (Perez-Melendez) based on a jury verdict awarding Perez-Melendez damages for the injuries she sustained when she fell into a drain inlet located on property owned by Marriott. The issue we will address is whether the trial court erred in failing to direct a verdict in favor of Marriott because Perez-Melendez failed to establish any negligence on Marriott's part.1 In order to resolve this issue, we will discuss in the following order the factual and procedural background of the instant case, the twoissue rule, the standard of review we must apply, and our legal analysis.

Factual And Procedural Background

Perez-Melendez, a Puerto Rico resident employed by the city of San Juan as the Director of Senior Citizens Volunteers, came to Orlando for a convention that was to be held at the Marriott World Center (hereinafter "World Center"). Perez-Melendez testified that she made reservations for a room at the World Center before leaving Puerto Rico. However, when she arrived to check in, she was advised that no more rooms were available. She was then provided accommodations at the Residence Inn, which is also owned by Marriott. The walking distance between the two hotels is approximately three-fourths of a mile.

On June 25, 2000, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Perez-Melendez, two other women, and their children decided to go from Perez-Melendez's room at the Residence Inn to the World Center. Unfortunately for Perez-Melendez, on her journey, she stepped into a drainage inlet and fractured her ankle. Perez-Melendez filed a personal injury suit against Marriott for damages. Encased within the same count of the complaint are four separate theories of liability. The first is based on the alleged active negligence of Marriott in failing to provide a reasonably safe transportation system for Perez-Melendez between the two hotels. The other three are premises liability theories based on allegations that Marriott failed to maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition, failed to correct a dangerous condition that Marriott knew or should have known about, and failed to warn Perez-Melendez of an existing dangerous condition of which Marriott knew or should have known. We note, parenthetically, that whether it is appropriate to plead more than one theory of liability in a single count of a complaint is not an issue before us.

At the conclusion of Perez-Melendez's case-in-chief and again at the conclusion of the trial, Marriott moved for a directed verdict, alleging that Perez-Melendez had failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence. The trial court denied both motions. The jury instructions that were read to the jury instructed the jury on each theory of liability. The verdict form, submitted to the jury without objection, did not request findings as to each theory of liability; rather, it simply requested the jury to determine whether Marriott was negligent and, if so, the amount of the damages. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Perez-Melendez, finding Perez-Melendez thirty-percent comparatively negligent.

Marriott argues that as a matter of law it did not owe a duty to Perez-Melendez to provide her a reasonably safe transportation system because it was not reasonably foreseeable that she would fall into the drain inlet and injure her ankle. Marriott contends that the issue of foreseeability as it relates to establishing a duty of care is a legal issue to be decided by the court and, therefore, the trial court should have granted its motion for directed verdict. Perez-Melendez argues that the incident she was involved in was foreseeable as a matter of law and Marriott did owe her a duty of care. Perez-Melendez also argues that she alleged three premises liability theories of recovery and that, pursuant to the two-issue rule, Marriott must establish that a directed verdict was appropriate for each theory alleged. Since Marriott cannot, asserts Perez-Melendez, the judgment should be affirmed.

The Two-Issue Rule

The two-issue rule provides that "where there is no proper objection to the use of a general verdict, reversal is improper where no error is found as to one of two issues submitted to the jury on the basis that the appellant is unable to establish that he has been prejudiced." Whitman v. Castlewood Int'l Corp., 383 So.2d 618, 619 (Fla.1980). The rule applies to separate theories of liability and defenses; it does not apply to the elements of a cause of action or defense. Grenitz v. Tomlian, 2003 WL 21290887 (Fla. June 5, 2003); Barth v. Khubani, 748 So.2d 260 (Fla. 1999). Hence, when a verdict is rendered in favor of the plaintiff, as in the instant case, the two-issue rule applies to actions brought on two or more theories of liability where the finding of liability as to one theory entitles the plaintiff to recover the same measure of damages recoverable under the other theories of liability. Grenitz; Barth; First Interstate Dev. Corp. v. Ablanedo, 511 So.2d 536 (Fla.1987); Johnson v. Thigpen, 788 So.2d 410 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001). In Barth, the court explained:

When a general verdict for the plaintiff is on review, the rule is applied by focusing on the causes of action, such that an appellate claim of error raised by the defendant as to one cause of action cannot be the basis for reversal where two or more theories of liability (or causes of action) were presented to the jury. 748 So.2d at 261. The burden of establishing error as to each theory of liability or defense is on the non-moving party. Barth.

For example, in Zimmer, Inc. v. Birnbaum, 758 So.2d 714 (Fla. 4th DCA), review denied, 786 So.2d 1193 (Fla.2000), the court applied the two-issue rule in a products liability case because the jury instructions included two standards for determining whether the product was unreasonably dangerous—the ordinary consumer test and the risk benefit test—and the verdict form did not require the jury to identify its basis for deciding that the product was defective. In a wrongful death action, the court in Penske Truck Leasing Co., LP v. Moore, 702 So.2d 1295 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997), applied the two-issue rule by presuming that the jury found for the plaintiffs on both theories of negligence submitted to the jury. The court reasoned that the verdict form did not request a finding based on each theory and, therefore, the court could not determine on which theory of negligence the jury based its finding of liability.

Similarly, in the instant case, Perez-Melendez filed her action based on four theories of liability. The jury instructions submitted to the jury instructed the jury on each theory of liability. Our review of the transcripts of the closing arguments clearly shows that argument on each theory of liability was presented to the jury. Without objection from Marriott, a general verdict form was submitted to the jury that did not itemize each theory of liability and request a finding by the jury as to each. Under these facts, it is impossible to determine on which theory the jury predicated liability. Moreover, the same measure of damages is attributable to each theory of liability advanced by Perez-Melendez. Therefore, it is appropriate to apply the two-issue rule in this instance. Having concluded that the two-issue rule applies, we must next determine whether Marriott has met its burden of establishing error as to each legal theory of liability submitted to the jury. In order to make this determination, we must consider and apply the correct standard of review.

Standard of Review

It is appropriate to grant a motion for directed verdict when there is no reasonable evidence upon which a jury could legally render a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So.2d 315 (Fla.2001); Goss v. Permenter, 827 So.2d 285 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002), review denied, 845 So.2d 889 (Fla.2003); Scott v. TPI Restaurants, Inc., 798 So.2d 907 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001); St. Johns River Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Fernberg Geological Servs., 784 So.2d 500, 504 (Fla. 5th DCA), review denied, 805 So.2d 806 (Fla.2001). Stated differently, a motion for directed verdict should be granted only where no view of the evidence, or inferences made therefrom, could support a verdict for the nonmoving party and the trial court determines that no reasonable jury could render a verdict for that party. Goss; Scott; St. Johns. "When considering a motion for directed verdict, the trial court is required to evaluate the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and every reasonable inference therefrom must be indulged in the plaintiff's favor." Scott, 798 So.2d at 909 (citations omitted). "If there are conflicts in the evidence or different reasonable inferences may be drawn from it, then the issue is a factual one that should be submitted to the jury and not be decided by the trial court as a matter of law." Id. (citation omitted). This standard should be applied by both trial courts and appellate courts when considering the propriety of a motion for directed verdict. Cecile Resort, Ltd. v. Hokanson, 729 So.2d 446, 447 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999).

In negligence cases, whether a duty of care exists is generally an issue of law to be determined by the court and, therefore, may be resolved pursuant to a motion for...

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