Robert L. Parks
Robert L. Parks (J. Albert Diaz)

R. TRAVIS COLLINS, PLAINTIFF, V. MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL, ET AL., DEFENDANTS

Case No.: 12-15739

Date: April 14, 2014

Case type: Wrongful death

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Author of opinion: Second Circuit Judge John M. Walker Jr.

Lawyers for petitioner: Robert L. Parks, Law Offices of Robert L. Parks, Miami; and Everette L. Doffermyre Jr. and Leslie Joan Bryan, Doffermyre Shields Canfield & Knowles, Atlanta

Lawyers for respondents: Todd R. Ehrenreich, Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial, Miami; Steven Gerard Hemmert, Luks Santaniello Petrillo & Jones, Fort Lauderdale; and Cristina Alonso, Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, Miami

Panel: Judges Walker, Stanley Marcus and Peter T. Fay

Originating court: Southern District of Florida

It was a mind-boggling verdict from a Miami federal jury: The defendants were liable but only 1 percent at fault. The plaintiff was 99 percent negligent and entitled to no money.

The plaintiff was the estate of David Knowlton, a mobile-computing-services entrepreneur from Norcross, Ga., who owned a $2.5 million home in a private golf club on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas.

On Aug. 19, 2007, he walked away from three buddies who were taking pictures of the sunset and apparently fell or was swept off a slippery cliff, struck his head and died. Exactly how that happened remains a mystery, since no one saw Knowlton fall into the ocean.

His personal representative sued the owners and operators of the Abaco Club, claiming they were negligent in failing to protect Knowlton from the dangerous craggy area abutting the club’s property. An expert later attested to $10.6 million in economic damages.

Among the defendants who prevailed in the July 2012 trial before U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro were Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton.

On April 14 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed Ungaro and ordered a new trial. The appellate court decided that the verdict, conflating liability and damages, represented an improper compromise among jurors.

“Plainly, the jury’s finding of zero dollars in damages resulting from Knowlton’s death is drastically deficient,” wrote Second Circuit Judge John Walker Jr., a panel member by designation.

A delighted Bob Parks, who helmed both trial and appeal for the Knowlton estate, said he’s gearing up for a retrial. “Obviously we’re willing to talk [settlement], but I haven’t heard anything,” said Parks, who heads his own firm in Miami.

Judging the jury

What happened in the jury room will probably stay as mysterious as Knowlton’s death. Still there’s always speculation.

Did jurors believe he committed suicide? The suicide theory was an affirmative defense that was withdrawn during pre-trial maneuvers.

However, the defense may have plowed or exploited a couple of back-door paths to suggesting Knowlton took his own life, consciously or not.

The cause of death is described in a plaintiff’s exhibit as “polytrauma with intracranial hemorrhage and fracture of ribs/injury upper and lower extremities; history of hypertension and depression.”

As Ungaro also noted in her omnibus order rejecting a new trial, “Defendant consistently maintained that a proximate cause of Knowlton’s death was his impairment from drugs and/or alcohol.”

Parks pooh-poohed the idea that jurors believed Knowlton had a propensity for killing himself.

“They got in some evidence of what had happened in the past, but not very much,” he said. “It wasn’t the suicide aspect.”

He warmed more to the notion that jurors reacted negatively to Knowlton’s status as a 1 percenter.

In 1983 he helped start Stratix Corp., which posted revenues of $96 million in 2009, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He was the private company’s chairman when he died at 53, leaving two young children.

Knowlton’s wealth “certainly could have been a factor,” Parks said, adding that he had to reveal net worth to establish economic loss. “Those are all factors that you can’t change.”

Defense attorney Todd Ehrenreich could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Two rulings

At 31 pages, Ungaro’s order defending the verdict is nearly twice as long as the Eleventh Circuit opinion upending it.

She devotes many words to the argument that while Knowlton was entitled to certain protections as an invitee of the Abaco Club, he knew as much as the owners did about the dangers of the Point, the rocky oceanside bluff where he presumably died.

Right afterward defendants erected a plywood fence near the site and put one or two “Do Not Enter” signs on the pathway leading to the Point. The judge didn’t see that as an admission—quite the contrary.

“No one testified, however, that this type of fence or sign would have deterred Knowlton and others from entering onto the Point and Plaintiff did not present any evidence of how Defendants could have otherwise prevented Knowlton’s death,” she wrote.

More than once Ungaro seems to admonish Parks for waiting until his post-trial motion to make certain objections he could have made earlier.

In a footnote she describes twice asking him if he wanted to discuss the verdict before the jury was discharged. She quotes him declining both invitations:

“I’m about to [accept] the verdict. So, again, is there anything we need to talk about? Mr. Parks, nothing?”

“No, Your Honor.”

Ungaro wrote, “On this record, plaintiff waived any argument that the verdict is inconsistent.”

Parks didn’t take it personally, saying, “I do not believe there was anything directed at me.”

Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit directed its criticisms at the trial judge, not the plaintiff’s lawyer. Looking at the same arguments Parks made in his new-trial motion to Ungaro, the appellate court reached the opposite conclusion.

It didn’t matter if the dangers were obvious to Knowlton, Walker wrote. That view of the law ignores “the defendants’ separate duty to use ordinary care to maintain the Abaco Club property in a reasonably safe manner to protect against foreseeable dangers on the Point by means other than posting a warning.”

As for the mind-boggling jury award, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the trial judge abused her discretion by “not finding that the verdict was the result of an impermissible compromise.”

So Parks’ timing didn’t matter after all.