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The Florida Legislature has partially undone a landmark Florida Supreme Court ruling issued in November that gave slip-and-fall injury victims the upper hand in lawsuits against supermarkets and other premises owners. A two-page bill passed Friday in the waning hours of the legislative session reshifts the burden to plaintiffs to prove that the store’s owner failed to exercise reasonable care in keeping the floors clean. However, the bill eliminates the requirement that plaintiffs prove that the object that caused them to fall was on the floor long enough for a store owner to have known about it. The legislation, written by Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and co-sponsored by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, is a compromise, said Rick McAllister, president and chief executive of the Florida Retail Federation, which had sought to have the supreme court’s ruling nullified in its entirety. “It’s not what we would like to see … but it is sort of a compromise that allows businesses to be in a more level playing field,” said McAllister. “It shifts the burden where it should be, on those who have filed the complaint.” Prior to the ruling, if a customer took a tumble, it would be up to them not only to prove that the store was negligent in failing to clean up a mess, but a plaintiff also had to prove that the owner knew or should have known that the treacherous mess was on the floor and still failed to clean it up, an almost impossible burden. The court’s 42-page ruling changed all that. The justices said that if a customer took a tumble, it would be up to the store to prove that it exercised reasonable care and courts no longer could simply dismiss a case if a plaintiff was unable to prove that the transitory foreign substance — be it a squishy grape or a brown banana — was on the floor long enough for the store owner to know it was there. Defense lawyers saw the ruling as setting a dangerous precedent that would open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits. As a result, the Florida Retail Federation quickly began searching for lawmakers willing to sponsor legislation that would undo the top court’s ruling. Simmons said that while the court did “an excellent job of analyzing slip-and-fall cases throughout the nation,” there was some obvious concern among members of the court that the ruling went too far. Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Charles Wells noted that the store owner’s duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition “should be central to the legal doctrine in these cases — not the store owner’s constructive knowledge of an unsafe condition.” Under this new legislation, either party is entitled to introduce evidence of constructive knowledge, but it is not required. “The goal was to create a level playing field between the plaintiff and the defendant keeping the burden of proof on the plaintiff as it should be in most instances,” Simmons said. Although the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers believes the supreme court’s ruling was “correctly decided,” it’s satisfied with the compromise legislation, said Paul Jess, the academy’s general counsel. As part of the compromise, the federation has agreed not to try to get stronger legislation passed next year. But, added McAllister, “if the courts turn on us and interpret this differently and businesses have their blood running in the street, then we will do something.”

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