Court Backs FPL In IRMA Nursing Home Case

TALLAHASSEE --- A state appeals court Wednesday rejected a lawsuit that alleged negligence by Florida Power & Light when residents of a Broward County nursing home were stuck in sweltering conditions after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

A three-judge panel upheld a circuit court decision that dismissed the allegations made against FPL by Christine Cooper, who was a resident of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. The hurricane knocked out power to the nursing home’s air-conditioning system for three days, with authorities attributing as many as 12 resident deaths to conditions in the building.

Cooper’s lawsuit alleged that FPL was partly responsible for the situation and raised a series of arguments, including that the utility failed to quickly restore power to the air-conditioning system.

But the appeals court focused on whether FPL had a legal “duty of care” to Cooper and concluded that it did not.

“Were we to find such a duty, it would open up public utilities to enormous liability for every conceivable injury, both personal and property, which may occur during a power outage,” said the ruling, written by Judge Martha Warner and joined by Judge Alan Forst and Associate Judge Lisa Walsh. “And to have a jury assess the adequacy of FPL’s plans and performance during an event, such as an outage due to a hurricane, would interfere with the extensive regulation of public utilities already required through the Public Service Commission. Such a ‘drastic shift’ of liability to a public utility is more properly made by the Legislature or Public Service Commission.”

Hurricane Irma made landfall Sept. 10, 2017 in Monroe and Collier counties and caused damage through much of the state. The nursing home’s air-conditioning system was out until Sept. 13, when residents were evacuated.

The evacuation and deaths of residents drew national attention and led to the state revoking the license of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. The 4th District Court of Appeal this year backed an administrative law judge’s decision to uphold the license revocation.

Authorities have attributed as many as 12 deaths to conditions at the facility, though Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy wrote that “clear and convincing evidence” was presented during the revocation case that nine of the 12 residents “suffered greatly from the exposure to unsafe heat in the facility.”

Cooper sued FPL and the nursing home, seeking damages from the utility for bodily injury and emotional distress. The complaint alleged, in part, “that FPL had a general duty to the public to maintain and operate the electric grid so that power is supplied,” the appeals-court ruling said.

“But in this case, by accepting Cooper’s allegation of duty, the ‘zone of risk’ would encompass the entire population of persons and property for which electricity is supplied,” Warner wrote. “We do not think it is foreseeable that the failure to restore electricity poses an ‘unreasonable’ risk of harm to the entire population. We have found no case holding that a utility owes a general duty to the public or noncustomer for a continuous supply of power. Indeed, the few cases which have touched on the issue have all determined that no such duty exists.”