Slavin Doctrine Applied to the Design Company in Absolving them of Liability from a Wrongful Death Claim

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Slavin Doctrine Applied to the Design Company in Absolving them of Liability from a Wrongful Death Claim

Traffic accident - one driver on the mobile phone, second expressing anger

 

Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal was recently asked to address an issue involving Florida’s Slavin doctrine.  In that case, the appellate court concluded that the Slavin doctrine applied to the design company in absolving them of liability from a wrongful death claim.

Specifically, the Plaintiff’s father died as a result of a car accident that occurred as he was exiting a mobile home park and collided with a truck.  Plaintiff alleged that the traffic signal at the intersection allowed a driver exiting the mobile home park to rely upon a traffic signal further out into the intersection while overlooking the traffic signal closest to him.

The traffic signal in question was commissioned by the City of Pembroke Pines, which asked the Florida Department of Transportation (“FDOT”) to install traffic signals.  Progressive Design and Engineering, Inc (“design company”) was subcontracted to design the signals.  The design company submitted the design to FDOT and later an FDOT employee commented that a special signal was necessary to ensure drivers did not get the wrong indication from the large interchange design.  No changes were made and FDOT contracted for the traffic signals to be constructed.

The jury in this case was instructed on the Slavin doctrine and found that the defect was both accepted and discoverable.  Plaintiff moved for a direct verdict which was denied.  The appellate court affirmed the jury’s finding.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court delved into the requirements necessary to comply with the Slavin doctrine and isolate a contractor from liability.

The first requirement is that the defect must be patent.  Patency is defined as whether or not the dangerousness of the condition was obvious had the owner exercised reasonable car.  The appellate court found that the evidence did support the jury’s finding that the defect was patent.  It supported this finding stating, FDOT was a highly knowledgeable and sophisticated purchaser, an FDOT employee discovered the potential design defect long before the accident, and that even a mobile home park resident recognized that something was wrong with the design.

The second requirement is that there must be acceptance.  Responsibility for a patent defect rests with the entity in control and ability to correct it.  It is the controlling entity’s intervening negligence in not correcting a patent defect that proximately causes the defect.  FDOT was the entity that controlled acceptance of the design company’s work.  It accepted the work months before the accident because the designer had no ability to alter the work once FDOT accepted the plans and put the construction contract out to bid.