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Suzuki Motor Corporation v. Winckler

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

August 29, 2019

Suzuki Motor Corporation, a foreign corporation, Petitioner,
v.
Scott Winckler, Respondent.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          Petition for Writ of Certiorari-Original Jurisdiction.

          Raoul G. Cantero of White & Case LLP, Miami, and Larry M. Roth of Larry M. Roth, P.A., Winter Park, for Petitioner.

          Maegen Peek Luka and Celene H. Humphries of Brannock & Humphries, Tampa, for Respondent.

          OSTERHAUS, J.

         Suzuki Motor Corporation seeks certiorari review of an order granting an application for a letter rogatory to take the examination of Mr. Osamu Suzuki, its current Chairman and former Chief Executive Officer. In the order, the trial court found that the "apex doctrine" does not apply outside the governmental context and that Mr. Suzuki was uniquely able to provide information relevant to this case. We deny the petition because the trial court's decision does not depart from the essential requirements of law.

         I.

         Scott Winckler's case alleges that on June 16, 2013, the brakes failed on his GSX-R series Suzuki motorcycle while he was riding it. The bike crashed and paralyzed Mr. Winckler from the waist down. Four months after the accident, Suzuki Motor Corporation issued a recall on the brakes of its GSX-R series motorcycles.

         Mr. Winckler filed a products liability suit against Suzuki Motor Corporation related to his accident and the brake issue. In the course of discovery, he sought a letter rogatory from the trial court seeking to take the examination of the Chairman of the Board of Suzuki Motor Corporation in Japan. See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.300(b). Mr. Winckler's application stated that the Chairman "possesses unique knowledge about specific facts relevant to [the] allegations," citing the Chairman's involvement with a document addressing the brake issue and a related email.

         Suzuki Motor Corporation filed objections to the application and a motion seeking protection under the apex doctrine. Its position was that its top-level corporate manager should not be subject to examination when others within the corporation could testify to the relevant issues.[*] It also filed a declaration from Chairman Suzuki in opposition to the application, stating that he has "no independent memory" of reviewing or signing the document regarding the brake issue and "no personal knowledge" of the details.

         After a hearing in October 2018, the trial court granted the motion for a letter rogatory. It found that the apex doctrine hadn't been applied outside of the governmental context and couldn't be applied to the corporate officer here. Besides rejecting the apex doctrine, the court found that that the Chairman had personal involvement and could uniquely provide case-relevant information due to having personal involvement with the brake issue. After the trial court granted the application, this petition for writ of certiorari followed.

         II.

         We review petitions for writ of certiorari for "(1) a departure from the essential requirements of the law, (2) resulting in material injury for the remainder of the case (3) that cannot be corrected on postjudgment appeal." Citizens Prop. Ins. Corp. v. San Perdido Ass'n, 104 So.3d 344, 351 (Fla. 2012) (citations omitted). Our analysis focuses on the first prong-a departure from the essential requirements of the law. A departure from the essential requirements of the law is "a violation of a clearly established principle of law." State v. Belvin, 986 So.2d 516, 525-26 (Fla. 2008) (quoting Belvin v. State, 922 So.2d 1046, 1048 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006)).

         Suzuki Motor Corporation argues that the trial court's order granting a letter rogatory violates the apex doctrine. The problem with its argument is that the doctrine is only clearly established in Florida in the government context, with respect to high-ranking government officials. The essence of Florida's apex doctrine is that "[an] agency head should not be subject to deposition, over objection, unless and until the opposing parties have exhausted other discovery and can demonstrate that the agency head is uniquely able to provide relevant information which cannot be obtained from other sources." Dep't of Agric. & Consumer Servs. v. Broward Cty., 810 So.2d 1056, 1058 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002) (emphasis added). "[A] party seeking to depose a . . . high-ranking governmental official must demonstrate the personal involvement of the official in a material way or the existence of extraordinary circumstances." Horne v. Sch. Bd. of Miami-Dade County, 901 So.2d 238, 241 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005) (emphasis added). We highlight "agency head" and "governmental official" because we have noted before that "no Florida court has adopted the apex doctrine in the corporate context." Fla. Office of Ins. Regulation v. Fla. Dep't of Fin. Servs., 159 So.3d 945, 951 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015); see also Remington Lodging & Hospitality, LLC v. Southernmost House, Ltd., 206 So.3d 764, 765 n.1 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016). We emphasized in that case (though in dicta) "that the government context is distinguishable [from the corporate context] because of separation of powers concerns." Id. And so, it follows that because the apex doctrine hasn't been adopted in the corporate context, the trial court did not depart from the essential requirements of the law by refusing to apply this doctrine to Suzuki Motor Corporation's corporate officer.

         Moreover, trial court's decision that the Chairman's deposition was reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence provides no basis for us to quash the order below. See Fla. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(b)(1) (allowing a party to discover any matter that is not privileged and is relevant to the subject matter of the pending action or appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence); Univ. of W. Fla. Bd. of Trs. v. Habegger,125 So.3d 323, 325 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013). In deciding whether to grant a writ of common-law certiorari, we are not so much concerned with “the mere existence of legal error as much as with the seriousness of the error.” Combs v. State,436 So.2d 93, 95-96 (Fla. 1983). The district court should grant a petition “only when there has been a violation of a clearly established principle of law resulting in a miscarriage of justice.” Id.; see also Jones v. State,477 So.2d 566, 569 (Fla. 1985) (Boyd, C.J., concurring specially) (noting that a "departure from the essential requirements of law . . . means an inherent illegality or irregularity, an abuse of judicial power, an act of judicial tyranny perpetrated with disregard of procedural requirements, resulting in a gross miscarriage of justice)." Here, we are mindful that trial courts have broad discretion in overseeing discovery and in protecting persons from whom discovery is sought. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(c); Rojas v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., 641 So.2d 855, 857 (Fla. 1994). In this instance, the trial court's order cited specific evidence supporting its conclusion that the Chairman was personally involved with recall-related corporate documents and uniquely able to provide relevant information. Cf. Remington Lodging & Hospitality, 206 So.3d 764; Racetrac Petroleum v. ...


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