Appeals court rules elevator company official can't be sued in worker's death

By Charmaine Little | Jan 10, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's First District Court of Appeal determined Dec. 28 that a lower court erred when it denied a motion to dismiss a wrongful death action.

Nona LaFreniere, vice president and general counsel of Otis Elevator Company, had challenged the ruling from Leon County Circuit Court, in Catherine Craig-Myers lawsuit against her. LaFreniere filed the appeal, stating she was acting within her corporate capacity at the time of the incident, so she was protected under the corporate shield doctrine.

An Otis Elevator worker had died while inspecting and repairing an elevator. Multiple investigations looked into the worker’s death, including those from the Tallahassee Police Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which delivered four citations to Otis, citing serious violations. Craig-Myers brought the wrongful death lawsuit and added that LaFreniere “managed, directed, supervised, monitored and controlled in-house and retained counsel,” amid the incident, according to the opinion. 

LaFreniere was also accused of purposefully helping Otis Elevator managers intentionally violate five OSHA regulations and that the company itself had hid how it contributed to deaths of its employees and misrepresented other employees. LaFreniere moved to dismiss, which was denied, so she appealed, as the appellant. Chief Justice Bradford L. Thomas authored the opinion, and justices L. Clayton Roberts and Timothy D. Osterhaus concurred.

“The corporate shield doctrine provides that personal jurisdiction cannot be exercised over a nonresident corporate employee sued individually for acts performed in a corporate capacity,” the appeals court noted. The only exception to this rule is when the acting officer performs negligent acts in Florida, no matter if it’s for the company or not. 

Because the amended complaint against the appellate consistently stated the alleged actions the appellate committed were in the scope of her employment as a corporate officer, the corporate shield doctrine does block personal jurisdiction, unless there is evidence that the appellant committed a tort in the state, which the appeals court noted that there is not, the court said.

“Although these allegations plainly assert that the appellate visited Florida throughout the span of nine years, none of the allegations suggest that she committed a tort while in the forum of the state,” the appeals court said.

The important question is if the amended complaint explains a cause of action for an intentional tort. Although the appellee says the appellant’s actions can lead to a first-degree misdemeanor, even if true, this isn’t enough to prove intentional tort that would serve as an exception to the corporate shield doctrine, the court decided. Considering these facts, the appeals court reversed and remanded the case.

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