Florida’s Alcohol or Drug Defense:

If a claimant suing a religious organization was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of an accident, in Florida, the claimant can be prohibited from recovering monetary damages.

Florida’s “Alcohol or Drug defense” statute provides that in any civil action, a claimant may not recover damages if at the time of injury the claimant was under the influence to the extent the claimant’s normal faculties were impaired, or the claimant had a blood or breath alcohol content level of 0.08 percent or higher. To get the benefit of the defense, it must also be shown that as a  result of the drugs or alcohol, the claimant was more than 50 percent at fault for his or her harm.

This defense applies to automobile accidents, trip and falls, and all other civil bodily injury claims.  So long as there is some evidence the claimant was under the influence at the time of injury, a religious organization will be able to assert the defense. By way of example, the fact that claimant’s blood alcohol level, drawn five hours after an accident, detected no signs of alcohol and the claimant did not exhibit signs of impairment such as slurred speech,  the defense was still permitted to pursue the alcohol defense because the claimant  admitted to drinking prior to the accident and witnesses smelled alcohol on the claimant.

The takeaway for religious organizations defending personal injury actions is the importance of fully investigating a claimant’s condition prior to an accident. Any indication of intoxication could dramatically change the outcome of the case.

Contract interpretation: Do not expect courts to consider the contracting parties’ intent!

In a recent opinion, a Florida appellate court found the contract term “sale”, as related to the sale of property, included a foreclosure sale.  The contract provided payment would be due if any of three triggering events occurred, the first being “the sale of the property” located at a specific street address.  One party argued the contract contained an ambiguity requiring the court to look outside the words of the contract to determine whether the parties intended “sale” to include an involuntary sale, such as a foreclosure sale.  The appellate court rejected this argument, holding the clear definition of sale includes an involuntary sale of the property.

This case highlights the importance for religious organizations to pay close attention to contract terms when signing agreements.  It is a rare exception for a court to look past the language of a contract to consider the parties’ intent.  As recognized by the appellate court in holding “sale” to mean “any sale”, to consider parties’ intent for a contract term there would need to be either an “extrinsic fact or extraneous circumstances that changed the parties’ understanding of the contract,” or “the contract language would need to be susceptible to two different interpretations.”

If your religious organization has questions about what a contract term or provision means, do not assume you understand what you are signing. Get a lawyer’s advice before signing.  The ability to argue later that a court should look past the words in the contract and interpret the parties’ intent will usually fail.