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Miami-Dade Expressway Authority v. Tropical Trailer Leasing, L.L.C.

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

June 27, 2018

Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and Javier Rodriguez, P.E., etc., Appellants,
v.
Tropical Trailer Leasing, L.L.C., et al., Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from a non-final order from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, John W. Thornton, Jr., Judge. Lower Tribunal No. 14-26236

          Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman and Jonathan H. Railey, Michael R. Piper and Christopher J. Stearns (Fort Lauderdale), for appellants.

          Akerman LLP and A. Rodger Traynor, Jr., and Lawrence D. Silverman, for appellees.

          Before ROTHENBERG, C.J., and SALTER and LUCK, JJ.

          SALTER, J.

         Defendants/appellants, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and Javier Rodriguez, P.E., in his official capacity as Executive Director of Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (collectively, "MDX"), appeal an order granting a motion for class certification by Tropical Trailer Leasing, L.L.C. ("Tropical Trailer"), and eight co-plaintiffs (collectively, the nine plaintiffs are referred to as "Plaintiffs"). We affirm.

         I. Facts; Proceedings in the Circuit Court

         The Plaintiffs are in the business of leasing trailers. The trailers are not self-propelled, and the Plaintiffs do not own the tractor trucks needed to transport the trailers. The Plaintiffs lease the trailers to third parties, who in turn hire the owners of tractor trucks to tow the leased trailers. Many times the tractor truck owners hire independent drivers for a particular haul or group of hauls.

         Implemented in 2010, MDX uses an electronic transponder system to charge the motor vehicles and drivers on its roads a toll based on the number of axles on the vehicle. If the tractor truck contains a working electronic transponder device (a "SunPass transponder"), the entire toll amount for a five-axle vehicle (three axles for the tractor and two for the trailer) is automatically deducted from the SunPass transponder account of the tractor truck's owner. If the vehicle has no SunPass transponder, then the MDX toll system relies on a video "Toll by Plate" system, capturing an image of the vehicle's rear tag. In such cases, MDX charges the entire per-axle toll to the rear tag's registered owner.

         This practice led MDX to charge the Plaintiffs a full five-axle toll. The Plaintiffs alleged that, starting in 2013, some MDX systems had the capability to photograph the front tag belonging to the driver, but MDX made no consistent effort to identify the driver of the motorized vehicle. The Plaintiffs asserted that MDX had no authority to impose a toll on their tractor-towed, non-motorized trailers before a 2012 amendment to the statutory definition of "motor vehicle," and thereafter, no authority to impose a toll on the trailers for the separately-owned and operated tractor trucks pulling the trailers.

         The Plaintiffs sued MDX for declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief based on allegations that MDX's toll collection practices, through its video tolling and "Toll by Plate" system, had unlawfully charged the Plaintiffs tolls on occasions where third parties were towing their trailers. The Plaintiffs argued that a trailer owner is not the owner of the "motor vehicle" incurring the toll. The Plaintiffs sought to certify a class of all trailer owners who were charged a toll by MDX because the driver of the motorized tractor truck did not pay the toll incurred by the truck.

         The operative Second Amended Class Action Complaint asserted that many of the tractor truck drivers tow the trailers on MDX roads without paying tolls. These drivers allegedly smudge or obscure the tractor plate to avoid MDX detection. Plaintiffs argued that Florida statutes make a driver ultimately responsible for the entire unpaid toll, not the trailer owner. See § 316.1001(2)(c), Fla. Stat. (2017). MDX has been imposing the toll on the trailer tag owners because the trailer tag was the only captured tag. The Plaintiffs have no practical way of identifying the drivers towing their trailers. This makes it impossible for the Plaintiffs to track down the toll violator to compel immediate payment of the toll, or to avoid the toll by providing MDX a timely affidavit with the toll violator's information, as required in section 316.1001(2)(C)1., and 2., Florida Statutes (2017). As a result, the Plaintiffs have been paying most of the violations even though the tolls are unlawful.

         The complaint also sought clarification of the trailer owners' liability for tolls after a 2012 statutory amendment. Prior to July 1, 2012, Plaintiffs allege that MDX had no authority to assess tolls against Tropical Trailer's non-self-propelled vehicles. This is based on section 316.110(2)(c), which specifies that the "owner of the motor vehicle involved in the violation is responsible and liable for payment . . . ." The pre-2012 version of section 316.003 defined "motor vehicle" as "(21) Motor vehicle.--Any self-propelled vehicle not operated upon rails or guideway, but not including any bicycle, motorized scooter, electric personal assistive mobility device, or moped." As the trailers were not self-propelled, they could not be assessed any toll under the pre-2012 statute.

         In 2012, however, the legislature amended section 316.003(21), defining "motor vehicle" as:

(21) Motor vehicle.--Except when used in s. 316.1001, any self-propelled vehicle not operated upon rails or guideway, but not including any bicycle, motorized scooter, electric personal assistive mobility device, or moped. For purposes of s. 316.1001, "motor vehicle" has the same meaning as in s. 320.01(1)(a).

§ 316.003(21), Fla. Stat. (2012) (emphasis added) (Ch. 2012-111, § 2, Laws of Fla., eff. July 1, 2012, to Dec 31, 2012) (currently renumbered as § 316.003(40)). Section 320.01(1)(a), in turn, provides:

(1) "Motor vehicle" means:
(a) An automobile, motorcycle, truck, trailer, semitrailer, truck tractor and semitrailer combination, or any other vehicle operated on the roads of this state . . . .

         The 2012 amendment to the section 316.003(21) definition arguably created an ambiguity between the requirements in section 316.1001, requiring payment from the registered owner of the motor vehicle committing the toll violation, and the now-undefined responsible party for the toll when there were several owners involved in a "truck tractor and semitrailer combination," as is the case in the Plaintiffs' operations.

         The Plaintiffs moved for class certification. At the class certification hearing, Tropical Trailer's co-owner and general manager, Alberto Vara, testified as the representative of all nine Plaintiffs. The second and only other witness was Stephan Andriuk, the Deputy Executive Director and Director of Toll Operations for MDX.

         Vara testified that the two MDX toll violation databases he examined included over 83, 000 trailer owners who had paid tolls to MDX between October 14, 2010, and April 2016 as a result of the video-based billing of trailer license plates. Vara described the methodology he used to analyze the data in the databases, and to compile the numbers he used. Although Vara was not able to state a precise number of other trailer owners that also owned the tractor truck pulling the trailer at the time of a citation, [1] the Plaintiffs themselves owned some 2, 600 towed units that were always pulled by tractors owned and operated by other persons or entities. Vara also testified about the registration holds placed against his trailers for unpaid tolls accrued years after the trailers had been sold. He also testified to collection attempts by MDX, including attempts at arrest, due to outstanding tolls.

         Finally, Vara described his attempts to lobby for a fairer system of toll collection even before the beginning of this action. He testified that MDX billed the trailer owner incorrectly (and exclusively) rather than apportioning between tractor and trailer based on the number of axles of the composite vehicle transiting a set of sensors and cameras. He also described the difficulties and limited success in trying to pass through an erroneous tractor charge to the customers of the Plaintiffs who leased trailers (who might have knowledge the Plaintiffs did not have regarding the owner or operator of the tractor).

         Andriuk testified on behalf of MDX. He stated that MDX had installed many front-facing cameras starting in 2013, and would have them in all of its toll facilities by August of 2017. He described the process MDX uses to store front tag pictures when the vehicle involved has more than two axles. He clarified on cross-examination that prior to June 30, 2012, no Toll by Plate fines were issued for front license plates in truck-trailer combinations. Andriuk also opined that Florida law permits MDX to bill trailer companies for tolls. Before this lawsuit, according to Andriuk, MDX settled all the toll disputes with trailer owners.[2]

         After the hearing, the trial court granted the motion for class certification. The court found that the elements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy, under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.220(a), were established. The trial court also found that Rule 1.220(b)(2) was satisfied because "the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to all the members of the class." The order granting the motion for certification found that Rule 1.220(b)(3) was satisfied because the class members' common questions of law and fact predominate over individual class member claims, and the class action process is superior to other available methods for the adjudication of the controversy.

         The trial court defined two subclasses, rather than the four proposed by the Plaintiffs, dividing the class members into those affected before, and those affected after, the July 1, 2012, legislative amendment: "(1) the owners of all trailers towed on MDX roadways for which MDX used the toll by plate method of toll imposition from October 14, 2010, through June 30, 2012," and "(2) the owners of all trailers on MDX roadways for which MDX used the toll by plate method of toll imposition since July 1, 2012." MDX appealed the order granting class certification.

         II. Analysis

         We review an order granting class certification for an abuse of discretion. Sosa v. Safeway Premium Fin. Co., 73 So.3d 91, 98 (Fla. 2011). The burden of proving the factual elements necessary to certify a class under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.220 is on the movant. Initially, the Plaintiffs sought to certify four classes of claimants:

CLASS A - DAMAGES AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF: All trailer owners whose trailer license tag was used by MDX between 10/14/10 and 6/30/12 to ...

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