Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Corporate Counsel: How Far Can A Long Arm Reach?

By Caroline Johnson Levine

Employees of foreign corporations who are physically present and working in Florida may believe that they enjoy immunity from liability for any tortious acts committed within Florida. However, the Florida Supreme Court has made it clear in Kitroser v. Hurt, 85 So. 3d 1084 (Fla. 2012), that the “corporate shield doctrine” does not operate as a bar to personal jurisdiction over nonresidents who commit negligent acts in Florida on behalf of their corporate employer.

Dale Dickey was driving a commercial truck as an employee of Airgas Carbonic Inc. when he struck and killed Rhina Castro Lara. The estate of Lara (Kitroser) filed a lawsuit against Airgas, Dickey, and five Airgas employees who failed to properly supervise and train Dickey. Airgas was a foreign corporation. However, Airgas employees used an Airgas facility in Bartow. Airgas filed motions to quash service and a motion dismiss the complaint because it “asserted that because their actions were taken on behalf of Airgas, rather than for their own personal benefit, the corporate shield doctrine precluded personal jurisdiction over them in Florida even though the negligent conduct occurred in Florida.” Id. at 1086. Uncontroverted evidence demonstrated that the Airgas employees were not Florida residents; did not rent or own Florida vehicles or real estate; did not have Florida financial accounts or tax liability; did not obtain Florida vocational, professional, or driver’s licenses; and were not registered to vote.

Generally, “the ‘corporate shield’ doctrine, also referred to as the ‘fiduciary shield’ doctrine, provides that acts performed by a person exclusively in his corporate capacity not in Florida but in a foreign state may not form the predicate for the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the employee in the forum state.” Id. at 1088; citing Doe v. Thompson, 620 So. 2d 1004, 1005 (Fla. 1993). Based upon this doctrine, the Airgas employees asserted that the “relevant inquiry is whether the actions occurred within the scope of employment and thus on behalf of the corporation.” Id. at 1088.

Importantly, the Florida Supreme Court has created a procedural process to determine whether the long-arm statute provides for personal jurisdiction over a nonresident. “First, a court must determine whether sufficient jurisdictional facts are alleged to bring the action within the ambit of Florida’s long-arm statute. If the first step of the inquiry is satisfied, a court must then determine whether the defendant has sufficient ‘minimum contacts’ with the state to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process requirements.” Id. at 1087; citing Venetian Salami Co. v. Parthenais, 554 So. 2d 499, 502 (Fla. 1989). Further, Florida’s long-arm statute, Section 48.193(1), provides that a nonresident submits himself or herself to the jurisdiction of Florida courts if that individual (b) commits a “tortious act within this state” or (f) causes “injury to persons or property within this state” as the defendant engages in business or service activities within Florida.

In Kitroser, the court established that corporation employees can be held liable for negligent or intentional acts, regardless of the employees’ resident status.