Florida Personal Jurisdiction – Case Law Update

KITROSER v. HURT, No. SC 11-25 (Fla. March 22, 2012)

The corporate shield doctrine is set out clearly under Florida law as essentially the distinction between a corporate officer acting on one’s own and a corporate officer acting on behalf of one’s corporation.  Doe v. Thompson, 620 So. 2d 1004 (Fla. 1993). Generally, the acts of a corporate employee performed in a corporate capacity do not form the basis for jurisdiction over a corporate employee in an individual capacity.  Id. (internal citations omitted).   In Kitroser v. Hurt, No. SC 11-25 (Fla. March 22, 2012), the Florida Supreme Court further clarified this rule – 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 exercise of personal jurisdiction over the employee in the forum state. Id. (emphasis in original).

In Kitroser, Dale Dickey (“Dickey”), an employee of Airgas Carbonic, Inc. (Airgas), negligently operated a commercial vehicle which struck and killed Rhina Castro Lara (“Castro Lara”).  Castro Lara’s estate and survivors filed a wrongful death action against Airgas, which was a foreign corporation, Dickey and five additional Airgas employees. Kitroser alleged that the five Airgas employees were personally responsible for Castro Lara’s death due to their negligent training and supervision of Dickey and either knew or should have known he was an unsafe driver.  The Airgas employees admitted that the alleged negligent actions took place in Florida, but moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that they were protected by the corporate shield doctrine since they did not live in Florida and were acting solely on behalf of their employer.  The Honorable Timothy P. McCarthy, presiding over the case in trial court, however, denied the nonresident employees’ motions to quash service and dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction, and an appeal followed.

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and certified the following question to the Florida Supreme Court:

WHERE AN INDIVIDUAL, NON-RESIDENT DEFENDANT COMMITS NEGLIGENT ACTS IN FLORIDA ON BEHALF OF HIS CORPORATE EMPLOYER, DOES THE CORPORATE SHIELD DOCTRINE OPERATE AS A BAR TO PERSONAL JURISDICTION IN FLORIDA OVER THE INDIVIDUAL DEFENDANT?

The Florida Supreme Court answered the foregoing certified question in the negative.

The parties disputed whether the corporate shield doctrine applied to shield nonresident corporate defendants from operation of Florida’s long arm statute.  Kitroser argued that the doctrine’s application was dependent upon the physical location of the actor, whereas the Airgas employees contended that the exclusive relevant inquiry was whether the actions occurred within the scope of employment and thus on behalf of the corporation.

The Florida Supreme Court deemed Kitroser’s argument to be correct that if an individual commits a tortious act while present in the State of Florida, that individual may be haled into a Florida court regardless of employment status, stating as follows: “Our precedent and the statutory language of section 48.193 have never suggested that an actor who is present in Florida and commits tortious acts in-state is excepted from personal jurisdiction because he or she works on behalf of a corporation.  Rather, our case law holds that a nonresident employee-defendant who works only outside of Florida, commits no acts in Florida, and has no personal connection with Florida will not be subject to personal jurisdiction of Florida courts simply because he or she is a corporate officer or employee.”  Id.

It was accordingly held that where an individual, non-resident defendant commits negligent acts in Florida, whether on behalf of a corporate employer or not, the corporate shield doctrine does not operate as a bar to personal jurisdiction in Florida over the individual defendant, and that jurisdiction properly applies to any person who commits torts within this state.  The court further stated that “to hold otherwise would be tantamount to providing corporate employees with a form of diplomatic immunity and would abolish the legislative goal inherent in adopting a long-arm jurisdictional statute.”