On March 17, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court reinstated a nearly $1.1 million judgment against a real estate investor who failed to timely answer a slip and fall complaint—even though the investor did not own the property on the date of the alleged injury. In doing so, the Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed two longstanding principles: 1) sufficiency of a complaint to state a cause of action must be determined solely by examination of the complaint and its attachments; and 2) failing to timely respond to a complaint can be an extremely costly mistake.
The facts underlying the Court’s decision in Santiago v. Mauna Loa Investments, LLC are straight forward. In February 2010, Anamaria Santiago filed a lawsuit against Mauna Loa alleging that she was injured two years prior when she tripped and fell at a commercial warehouse property. Santiago alleged that Mauna Loa owned, maintained and/or controlled the property on the date of her injury. The complaint was served on Mauna Loa’s registered agent, who sent it to an attorney, but the attorney failed to timely file an answer or response. As a result, in May 2010, the trial court entered a default. Mauna Loa subsequently filed at least five motions to vacate the default, but all were denied.
Shortly thereafter, Santiago filed a separate complaint against Iberia NV, LLC, in which she sought damages for the same injury. In the Iberia Complaint, Santiago claimed that Iberia and others owned and/or controlled the property on the date of her injury. The Iberia Complaint did not name Mauna Loa. To the contrary, the Iberia Complaint expressly alleged that the property was conveyed to Mauna Loa by special warranty deed three months after the date of the alleged injury. A copy of the special warranty deed was attached to the Iberia Complaint.
The two cases were eventually consolidated, prompting Mauna Loa to file an Amended Motion to vacate the default. Mauna Loa argued that the later filed Iberia Complaint constituted an admission that Santiago’s prior allegations relating to Mauna Loa’s ownership of the property on the date of her injury were false. The trial court denied Mauna Loa’s Amended Motion and prohibited Mauna Loa from filing any further pleadings seeking to set aside the default. The case then proceeded to a jury trial on damages and the jury awarded Santiago $1,099,874.48.
On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed. The district court reasoned that, “at the time Mauna [Loa] filed the Amended Motion, the trial court had before it the special warranty deed, which was attached to the consolidated Iberia Complaint [and] established that Mauna [Loa] did not own the property on the date of Santiago’s injury.” According to the district court, because the record established that Santiago failed to state a claim for premises liability against Mauna Loa, the trial court was required to set aside the default as void.
The Florida Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the jury’s verdict. The high court concluded that although the cases were consolidated, the district court improperly considered the attachments to the Iberia Complaint when determining the sufficiency of the Mauna Loa Complaint. Because the “four corners” of the Mauna Loa Complaint stated a cause of action, the default was neither void nor voidable.
Moreover, the Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Mauna Loa filed to establish excusable neglect for failing to answer the complaint. The Court reasoned that “[a]fter one call to her attorney’s office, [Mauna Loa’s] president took no further action to assure a timely response to the complaint was filed.”
Although the Santiago decision will certainly be cited for its reaffirmation of the “four-corners” rule, it also implicitly raises interesting (and troubling) questions about the extent to which clients may safely assume their attorneys are protecting their interests.