Florida Power & Light "Hid" Document, Settles with Longshoreman over Port of Miami Accident

​For a company that's in the business of providing light, FPL apparently likes to keep some things in the dark.

Last month a jury found Florida Power & Light partly responsible for an accident at the Port of Miami in 2004 that left longshoreman Willie Walker crippled. Walker's attorneys say FPL "stonewalled" proceedings by hiding a key document for years while urging the court to toss the lawsuit.

"This was either willful misconduct or willful blindness," says Jason Margulies, one of Walker's lawyers. "We were able to discover straight out fraud by FPL."

On July 31, 2004, Willie Walker was driving his 167,000-pound toploader -- a giant fork lift used to handle shipping containers -- to a parking lot after a shift at the Port of Miami.

But as he drove past a 10-foot hole, the pavement around his toploader collapsed. The machine plunged violently into the earth, wrenching Walker's back and nearly throwing him 13 feet to the ground.

The injury almost doomed Walker to a wheelchair. He needed surgery to remove and fuse damaged discs in his back. He now walks with a limp and is unable to return to the job that ​once netted him $100,000 a year.

After the accident, Walker sued FPL -- who owned an easement on the land -- and the general contractor (Danella Construction Corp.) that FP&L had hired to pay a third company to drill a hole to run cable out to Fisher Island.

FPL argued that, by subcontracting out the work, it wasn't liable for the accident. Simpler still, it insisted that "there (was) no contract between the Port of Miami and FPL."

"They stonewalled the entire discovery period, which took years," says Margulies, who assisted lead attorney Michael Winkleman on behalf of Walker.

"Winkelman was able to subpoena the county and got the smoking gun document that FPL had denied the whole time," he says. That document, "Agreement Between Miami-Dade County and Florida Power & Light Company," includes the following passage:

Compliance with Applicable Laws, Codes, Etc. While conducting any activity on the Port, FPL agrees that it and its employees, agents, affiliates, contractors, and guests shall comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws, codes, rules, (and) ordinances...
"These are non-delegable duties," Margulies argues.

After Margulies and Winkleman were finally able to show the agreement to Judge Israel Reyes, things got ugly.
Winkleman: That (document) means that everything that FPL did, the deposition, the renewed motion for summary judgment... was all done knowing full well that the document that they said did not exist, existed. That is fraud. That is a clear and convincing scheme to defraud us, to defraud you, to defraud justice.
And when FPL attorneys argued that the employee who had a copy of the agreement "was not aware of the language," Reyes exploded.
Because it's not what's in his mind or it wasn't sitting in front of him?

Let me tell you something. I've given a lot of depositions as a police officer and if I would have used that answer as a cop... I would have been sanctioned by the Court...

Because this, what it sounds like to me, is that he's hiding that document. That's what it sounds like to me if he's the only one that has a copy.
A jury awarded Walker $4.4 million in damages for lost earnings, medical expenses, pain, suffering, and disabilities in October: FPL was required to pay 15 percent, Danella 52.5 percent, and shipping company Universal Maritime/Maersk 32.5 percent. Instead, however, Walker and the defendants settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

But Margulies says the case doesn't scratch the surface of the bigger problem: Miami companies shirking liability by hiding documents.

"It is very, very rare that you catch a corporation that is withholding a document," he says. "It's extremely important for the court to sanction this type of behavior, because for every instance that you're able to prove, there are probably 20 others that you can't."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.