Fla. SC: Airgas employees subject to personal jurisdiction

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 27, 2012, 1:35pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The Florida Supreme Court last week affirmed a trial court's ruling in a wrongful death lawsuit, holding that a group of Airgas Carbonic Inc. employees are subject to the personal jurisdiction of the state's courts.

Rhina M. Castro Lara was killed when an Airgas employee, Dale Dickey, negligently operated a commercial truck that struck Castro Lara's automobile on Highway 27, south of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County.

Mitchell Kitroser, as personal representative of the woman's estate, sued Airgas, the fourth-largest manufacturer and distributor of liquid carbon dioxide in the U.S., and Dickey.

Kitroser later amended the complaint to include five additional Airgas employees as defendants: Robert Hurt, Michael Weis, Kenneth Beck, Perry Brock and Randy Moore.

Kitroser alleged that the individuals were personally responsible for the death of Castro Lara because, as a result of their personal supervision or training of Dickey, which occurred in Florida, they knew or should have known that Dickey was a careless and dangerous driver.

The trial court determined that Florida's long-arm statute, section 48.193, provided a basis for personal jurisdiction over the Airgas employees in Florida.

On appeal, the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded with instructions that the trial court order, which denied the Airgas employees' motions to quash service of process and dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, be vacated.

In addition, the court certified the following question to the state's high court:

"Where an individual, non-resident defendant commits negligent acts in Florida on behalf of his corporate employer, does the corporate shield doctrine operate as a bar to personal jurisdiction in Florida over the individual defendant?"

The Court, in its ruling Thursday, answered in the negative and quashed the Fourth District's decision.

Justice R. Fred Lewis authored the Court's 13-page opinion.

"The Airgas employees do not contest that they were in Florida, nor do they contest that they engaged in some form of conduct, training, or supervision of Dickey in Florida. The corporate shield doctrine, therefore, is inapplicable and does not exclude the Airgas employees from the exercise of personal jurisdiction by Florida courts," Lewis wrote.

The statutory language of section 48.193 has never suggested that an actor who is present in Florida and commits tortious acts in-state is excepted from personal jurisdiction because he or she works on behalf of a corporation, the Court explained.

"Rather, our case law holds that a nonresident employee-defendant who works only outside of Florida, commits no acts in Florida, and has no personal connection with Florida will not be subject to the personal jurisdiction of Florida courts simply because he or she is a corporate officer or employee," Lewis wrote.

"The explicit language of section 48.193(1)(b) clearly establishes that if one is personally present in Florida and commits a tort in Florida, one is subject to the personal jurisdiction of Florida courts."

Simply put, the Court said, jurisdiction properly applies to "any person" who commits torts within the state.

"To hold otherwise would be tantamount to providing corporate employees with a form of diplomatic immunity and would abolish the legislative goal inherent in adopting a long-arm jurisdictional statute: to provide an in-state forum to hold those responsible who commit negligent acts in Florida," Lewis wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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