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Florida Department of Transportation v. Tropical Trailer Leasing, LLC

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

November 6, 2017

FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION and JIM BOXOLD, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, Appellants,
v.
TROPICAL TRAILER LEASING, LLC, et al., Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

         An appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. Karen Gievers, Judge.

          Clinton L. Doud, Chief Counsel, Civil Litigation; Ryan Scott Bourgoin, Assistant General Counsel, Civil Litigation; George S. Reynolds, IV, and Marc A. Peoples, Assistant General Counsels, Florida Department of Transportation, Tallahassee, for Appellants.

          Diane G. DeWolf of Akerman LLP, Tallahassee; A. Rodgers Traynor, Jr. and Lawrence D. Silverman of Akerman LLP, Miami, for Appellees.

          B.L. THOMAS, C.J.

         The Florida Department of Transportation appeals the trial court's non-final order certifying two sub-classes in favor of Appellee, Tropical Trailer Leasing, LLC. The Department argues that the trial court abused its discretion on three grounds: deciding the merits of Tropical Trailer's claim; certifying broader subclasses than requested by Tropical Trailer; and finding that Tropical Trailer proved the elements of rule 1.220, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. We disagree with the Department's assertion that the trial court decided the merits of Tropical Trailer's underlying claim, but we reverse the order and remand, because the trial court abused its discretion by expanding the class beyond that pled in Tropical Trailer's amended complaint. As we reverse on this issue, we do not reach the issue of whether Tropical Trailer proved the elements of rule 1.220, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.

         Facts

         Tropical Trailer leases trailers to third parties. It filed suit to invalidate the Department's method of assessing tolls for towed trailers. Tolls were previously assessed against the vehicle pulling the trailer. Following the advent of cashless billing, SunPass transponders were installed on vehicles, and the Department began assessing tolls without requiring vehicle drivers to stop; but not all semi-trucks had SunPass transponders installed. The Department later implemented the toll-by-plate billing system, using either front-plate cameras or rear-plate cameras to capture photographs of license plates to assess tolls.

         In Florida, license plates on semi-trucks are attached to its front bumper, and license plates on cars, trucks, and trailers are attached to the vehicle's rear bumper. At some tolling locations, the Department has only installed rear-plate cameras, which assess a toll against the trailer owner, while at other tolling locations, the Department has installed both front and rear-plate cameras. In cases where a semi-truck's front-license plate is hidden, or when a vehicle is towing a trailer and the vehicle's rear license plate is obscured, the toll is assessed against the trailer owner, rather than the vehicle owner, as the trailer's rear license plate remains visible.

         Tropical Trailer sued the Department for erroneously interpreting sections 316.003(21) and 316.1001, Florida Statutes (2010), to authorize the Department to assess tolls against the trailer owner, instead of the owner of the vehicle towing the trailer. Tropical Trailer asserted that its trailers were not "motor vehicles" within the meaning of section 316.003(21), and that the Department should have charged the vehicle owner the toll pursuant to section 316.1001, because the vehicle owner was the "person" who "used" the toll road. Tropical Trailer argued that while it may know who was driving the vehicle and thus could obtain reimbursement, many times leasing contracts preclude identifying the driver. Furthermore, Tropical Trailer asserted that it was spending its resources to collect tolls for the Department. Tropical Trailer also asserted that there were approximately forty other trailer-leasing companies subject to the same unauthorized billing procedures.

         In its initial complaint, Tropical Trailer alleged it was suing on behalf of the following class:

All owners of a trailer or semitrailer or chassis who within the four years preceding the filing of this lawsuit were charged a highway toll by [the Department] because the driver of the motorized vehicle towing the trailer or semitrailer or chassis failed to immediately pay the applicable toll.

         The Department moved to strike the class on the following grounds:

This definition includes any person who within the preceding four years owned a trailer and used the Department's Toll-By-Plate payment system. The proposed class is not limited to persons similar to Tropical Trailer who lease trailers to customers that incur tolls through Toll-By-Plate. Instead, it seeks to include anyone who owned a trailer and incurred a toll through Toll-By-Plate within the preceding four years. As proposed, the class definition would include trailer owners who themselves used the toll road but did not 'immediately pay the applicable toll' because they chose to pay through ...

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