As we have mentioned in other blog posts, witness testimony and issues of credibility can make or break a Florida personal injury lawsuit. The Third District Court of Appeal’s recent ruling in Suarez v. Benihana is a good reminder that the outcome of a suit can turn not only on the testimony of third parties, but also that of the people suing.
Jose Suarez and Anais Suarez – along with their four-year-old daughter – were injured in an Aug. 2004 incident at a Benihana restaurant when they were allegedly beaten by other diners at the teppanyaki-style Japanese eatery. The incident occurred after the family had finished eating and was waiting for their car to be returned by valet staff. A verbal altercation between Suarez and an unidentified man escalated, culminating in the alleged beating by three men, each of whom were charged with felony assault and battery.
The Suarez family sued Benihana of Florida about three years later, alleging that the company negligently failed to provide security for customers at the restaurant. A trial court granted the company’s motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that the plaintiffs had committed fraud on the court by providing false and misleading information.
In particular, the court noted a number of inconsistencies between testimony given by the couple in depositions related to the 2007 criminal prosecutions of the alleged assailants and that given in depositions related to their suit in 2011. In general, these inconsistencies related to whether Mr. Suarez had been drinking on the night of the incident, how the fight started and whether he had agreed to go across the street and fight one of the men.
On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, noting that dismissal based on fraud is based on a “heightened standard,” which requires “clear and convincing evidence.” In other words, Benihana had to establish clearly and convincingly that the plaintiffs hatched an “unconscionable scheme calculated to interfere with the judicial system’s ability impartially to adjudicate a matter or improperly influencing the trier of fact or unfairly hampering the presentation of the opposing party’s claim or defense,” according to the court.
Here, the company failed to meet this burden. The court explained that dismissal for fraud should be reserved for “the most blatant showing of fraud, pretense, collusion or other similar wrongdoing,” citing its 2009 decision in Laurore v. Miami Auto. Retail, Inc. Although the court found clear inconsistencies in deposition testimony, it further stated that this was not enough to prove a “scheme” to defraud the trial court. Nor did these inconsistencies go to the heart of the claim, as the lower court found.
As a result, the court vacated dismissal of the claim and remanded the action back to the trial court for further proceedings.
The South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine provide free consultations and case evaluations for people injured in accidents throughout the area, including in Pompano Beach, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. If you have suffered injury because of another person’s negligence, call for a free consultation today.
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