Stand Your Ground: Immediate Immunity to Civil Suit?

street-fight-379259-mIt goes without saying that Chapter 776 of the Florida Statutes, more commonly known as Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, has recently been the subject of heated discussion. Although commentators across the nation have extensively delved into the substance of the law and proffered opinions on Chapter 776’s merits and detriments, few have looked at the law’s implications outside of the criminal setting.

Recently, however, the Third District Court of Appeals assessed the importance of Stand Your Ground Law in the civil setting. In Professional Roofing and Sales, Inc. v. Flemmings, the Third District Court of Appeals determined whether the immunity granted pursuant to Chapter 776 in a previous criminal case definitively foreclosed liability in subsequent personal injury litigation.

Mr. Flemmings, the plaintiff in this action, brought the suit at issue against his former coworker and employer for an incident dating back to the winter of 2008. In 2008, Mr. Flemmings was beaten with a baseball bat by a coworker who was later arrested and charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. In the criminal case, the coworker argued that the battery was a justifiable use of force pursuant to Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and brought a motion to dismiss the charges. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the criminal court granted the motion. Prior to final disposition in the criminal case, Flemmings filed a personal injury suit against the coworker and his employer. Following the criminal court’s determination, the defendants moved to have the civil case dismissed, arguing that the criminal court’s determination barred civil liability. The trial court denied the motion and stated that the issue was more appropriately handled at the summary judgment phase. The defendants sought immediate review of the decision.

Specifically, § 776.032 of the Florida Statutes provides that a person who uses justifiable force “is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force.” Although the statute clearly provides for immunity in both the criminal and civil settings, the key question on appeal was whether the prior criminal court determination had a preclusive effect on the civil court. In other words, does the criminal court’s determination that the coworker’s use of force was justified automatically apply to the civil court proceedings? The Third District Court of Appeals unanimously held that it did not.

Under the common law, the parties to the present action must be the same as those in the prior proceeding for any form of preclusion to apply. In this case, the party to the prior criminal action was the State of Florida, not Mr. Flemmings. Accordingly, preclusion should not apply. Since the Stand Your Ground Law does not clearly indicate intent to abrogate the common law rules with respect to preclusion, those rules still have force. The rationale for this common law rule is that it is unfair to strap a party with the burden of preclusion when he or she was not the one who had the opportunity to argue the issue. In this case, why should Mr. Flemmings deal with the criminal court’s prior determination when he was not the one who had the opportunity to argue whether his coworker’s use of force was justified?

Though immunity is not automatic, the civil court must still conduct an evidentiary hearing and determine whether the use of force was justified and, if it was, grant civil immunity to the defendant. However, an interesting question remains: if the coworker’s use of force is deemed justified, would immunity from civil action extend to both defendants in this case? If you recall, the immunity statute applies to the one who uses the force but not necessarily others who could be found liable for that person’s use of force.

As this case demonstrates, even ostensibly straightforward personal injury cases can raise various novel and unexpected issues. Accordingly, if you are considering filing suit for a serious injury at the workplace or other personal injury, it is imperative to seek the advice of knowledgeable legal counsel capable of providing useful guidance when unanticipated issues arise. The South Florida personal injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are ready to speak to you about your case. Our motto is “Never settle for less” and we subscribe strongly to that principle. We fight for our clients in and out of the courtroom to make sure that they get everything they deserve. Click here, or call 1-855-800-8000 today to schedule your free case evaluation with an experienced attorney.