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Florida Appellate Court Reverses Jury Verdict In Favor Of Window Supplier Based On Evidence Admitted At Trial

In Hernandez, et al., v. CGI Windows and Doors, Inc., No. 3D20-1318, 2022 WL 610122 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Mar. 2, 2022), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed a jury verdict in favor of a window supplier and remanded the case for a new trial. The Court of Appeal held the trial court abused its discretion in allowing inadmissible unsworn pleadings showing other subcontractors on the project had been previously dismissed from the case pursuant to a stipulation for settlement.

Plaintiffs William and Rite Hernandez (“Plaintiffs”) owned a construction company known as Epic Construction, Inc. (“Epic”). Plaintiffs served as their own general contractor in the construction of their home. Plaintiffs, acting through Epic, hired CGI Windows and Doors, Inc. (“CGI”) to design and create custom windows for their new home. Plaintiffs also hired R&S, Inc. (“R&S”) to position the custom windows and NCJD to perform stucco work in the adjacent areas.

Shortly after the windows and stucco were installed, several leaks were discovered. Construction was halted so that CGI could install replacement windows and perform other remedial efforts. CGI’s efforts were unsuccessful.

Epic filed an initial complaint (the “Epic Complaint”) against NCJD for performing negligent stucco work. The Epic Complaint was amended to add claims against R&S. Epic voluntarily dismissed the claims against R&S and subsequently amended the Epic Complaint once again. In the operative complaint, both Epic and the Plaintiffs asserted claims against CGI and NCJD. NCJD was later dismissed from the case pursuant to a stipulation for settlement, leaving CGI as the sole defendant.

Before trial, CGI requested the trial court to judicially notice the pleadings filed by the current and former parties. CGI argued these pleadings constituted party admissions with respect to the Plaintiffs and Epic and were relevant to CGI’s defenses. Plaintiffs and Epic opposed this request and filed a motion to amend the case style to remove the names of R&S and NCJD. Plaintiffs and Epic argued CGI wanted to keep the former defendants in the case style to influence the jury. The trial court did not grant the motion to amend the case style. Further, the trial court ruled the pleadings could be used as evidence to show the Plaintiffs and Epic had sued the former defendants, R&S and NCJD, in relation to the construction defects.

At trial, CGI used the pleadings to make two arguments: (1) Plaintiffs and Epic were seeking the same relief from CGI they had previously sought to recover from R&S and NCJD; and (2) Plaintiffs and Epic lacked veracity as they admitted the former defendants were responsible for the construction defects in their pleadings. Ultimately, the jury found these arguments persuasive and entered a judgment in favor of CGI.

The Appellate Court reversed the jury’s verdict, holding the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the pleadings into evidence. Under Florida law, pleadings generally cannot be used by an opposing as proof of an issue. Pleadings can only be offered into evidence when a party “manifested an adoption or belief in its truth.” This exception did not apply, as the pleadings introduced into evidence were unsworn.

The Appellate Court also held the trial court abused its discretion by admitting evidence relating to the former defendants’ settlements. Florida law does not allow references to any settlement agreements between the parties, as such evidence destroys the possibility of a fair trial.

Lastly, the Appellate Court held the trial court’s errors were not harmless. Throughout the trial, CGI called the Plaintiffs’ liars and accused them of recovering the same damages three different times from each defendant. The jurors were influenced by these arguments, as the verdict form contained the name of a former defendant that had settled. The Court concluded the inadmissible evidence admitted at trial clearly contributed to the jury’s verdict, and ordered a new trial.