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Collins v. Auto Partners V. LLC

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

July 31, 2019


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, Okeechobee County; Laurie E. Buchanan, Judge; L.T. Case No. 2017CA167.

          Philip M. Burlington and Nichole J. Segal of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, and Richard D. Schuler of Schuler, Halvorson, Weisser, Zoeller & Overbeck, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Hinda Klein and Samuel B. Spinner of Conroy Simberg, Hollywood, for appellee.

          May, J.

         The plaintiff appeals a final summary judgment in favor of an auto dealership. The plaintiff argues summary judgment was entered in error as genuine issues of material fact remained. Those issues are whether: 1) the vehicle involved in the accident was a courtesy loaner vehicle; and 2) the Graves Amendment[1] applied to that vehicle. We disagree with the plaintiff and affirm.

         The plaintiff was severely injured when struck by a vehicle driven by an auto dealership employee. He filed an amended complaint against the driver and one count for vicarious liability against the dealership. The dealership claimed the vehicle was a short-term courtesy vehicle provided to its employee in his capacity as a customer while his car was undergoing service at the dealership. It further claimed the Graves Amendment limited the dealership's liability.

         In its answer, the dealership admitted it owned the vehicle but denied all other allegations. It asserted the following as defenses: comparative negligence; the plaintiff's failure to mitigate damages; the damages were limited by section 324.021, Florida Statutes, because the dealership leased the vehicle to its employee; and the protection of the Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106. It also asserted entitlement to a setoff for all collateral source payments.

         Attached to the original answer was a rental agreement dated March 31, 2017 ("first rental agreement"), documenting the rental of a 2017 Chevy Malibu purportedly signed by the employee. It stated the car was returned April 3, 2017, prior to the accident. The employee later denied signing this rental agreement and testified in deposition that the signature and initials were not his.

         The dealership subsequently filed an answer, affirmative defenses to the amended complaint, and asserted a third-party complaint against its employee.[2] The answer pled the same affirmative defenses. But, this time, the dealership attached a different rental agreement ("second rental agreement"). This agreement covered the time of the accident and was for a different vehicle. The employee had signed this agreement, but it was undated and executed after the employee returned to work following the accident.

         The dealership moved for summary judgment. The dealership's service manager attested that the car driven by the employee at the time of the accident was a short-term "rental," with the dealership "factor[ing] the cost of the short-term rental vehicle into the price for service on the customer's vehicle." He also attested that a true and accurate rental agreement was attached.

         The dealership filed an amended motion for summary judgment arguing entitlement to a judgment as a matter of law based on the Graves Amendment. The dealership alternatively argued it was entitled to a partial summary judgment, pursuant to § 324.021, Fla. Stat., which caps the dealership's liability at $600, 000 if the permissive user had less than $500, 000 of insurance. The dealership filed the deposition of another employee and an affidavit from the service manager authenticating the first and second rental agreements.

         In response to the amended motion for final summary judgment, the plaintiff argued there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the dealership had leased the car as a rental vehicle. He argued the first rental agreement was fabricated because the employee denied ever seeing or signing it. The plaintiff further contended the rental agreements were tantamount to perjury and were sufficient to warrant dismissal of the dealership's pleadings. He did not, however, ask for that relief.

         Along with the discrepancies in the rental agreement paperwork, the plaintiff raised issues about whether the car driven by the employee was a dealership designated loaner. Other courtesy vehicles were new, had never been sold, and had stickers on the back window indicating they were dealership rental cars. The car involved in the accident was pre-owned and did not have a courtesy vehicle sticker.

         The plaintiff also argued the dealership was not entitled to partial summary judgment capping liability at $600, 000, pursuant to § 324.021(9)(b)3., Fla. Stat., because the ...

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