Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud – Joint and Several Liability


Effective April 2006, the Florida Legislature scrapped the theory of joint and several liability, joining the majority of jurisdictions that have abolished these legal principles. It was a move heavily lobbied by big businesses, and now, per Florida Statute 768.81, victims in cases where several parties may be responsible for injuries are unable to compel a single defendant to pay for a penny more than his or her percentage of fault.

Our Fort Myers injury lawyers know that what this means, essentially, is that many injured parties are no longer made whole. Joint and several liability allowed victims to fully recover damages for injuries in cases where a full recovery from all defendants might not be possible. That is no longer an option, and it can include cases where other individuals are not even named as defendants.

Similar statutes have been passed in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Supreme Court recently weighed the case of Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud, a premises liability lawsuit stemming from a fall due to uneven flooring that was unmarked as such. The issue of joint and several liability was the key point of contention in the appeal.

According to court records, the case began when a church parishioner was injured while being wheeled into a Catholic school. Her husband was pushing her wheelchair into the entrance, when he wheeled her over an unmarked, 5-inch drop. She fell from the chair and sustained serious injuries.

Plaintiff sued the local diocese, which owns and operates the school, asserting the organization failed to protect her from an unreasonable risk of harm created by the unmarked drop. Her husband was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

A trial was held, and the jury awarded plaintiff nearly $225,000 in compensatory damages, finding the diocese 50 percent at fault, and her husband 50 percent at fault. The court found that the diocese should be made to pay the full $225,000 judgment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court held previously that when a jury apportions fault between a single defendant and non-party tortfeasor, the amount collectable from the defendant is limited to assigned share of fault.

Plaintiff sought to reallocate her husband’s equitable share of the damages ($112,500) to the sole defendant. Citing a provision of state law, the district court found the husband’s share uncollectable, and reallocated his portion to the sole defendant. The appellate court affirmed this allocation, finding the state legislature hadn’t expressly limited application of the statute that allowed this action to parties jointly and severally liable.

The diocese petitioned – and received – a review from the state supreme court, which ultimately reversed. The court found that the law was ambiguous on this issue, and both parties presented reasonable interpretations. However, previous case law has been explicit in finding a person who is severally liable can only be made to contribute an amount in proportion to his or her percentage of fault – even when the plaintiff sues fewer parties than all who caused harm. Reallocation of damages runs counter to this holding, and would have one defendant paying more than his or her share of damages, as decided by a jury.

Although the statute regarding this was ambiguous, the court ruled it was not the legislature’s intent that one defendant should pay more than an equitable share of damages, even when other defendants lacked the ability to pay.

If you have been injured in Fort Myers, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud, Sept. 10, 2014, Minnesota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Hot Coffee: Documentary Highlights Farce of Tort Reform, Aug. 22, 2014, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog