Articles Posted in Government Liability

Recently, an appeals court issued an opinion in a Florida negligence lawsuit stemming from injuries an attorney suffered while visiting a county jail client. As the attorney passed through a security gate at the jail, an inside gate closed on her. The defendants argued that neither the County nor the corrections officer controlling the gate acted negligently. Instead, the defendant argued that the plaintiff tripped on a sensor or the gate malfunctioned. The defendants contended that the malfunction was unrelated to any negligence on their part.

The plaintiff presented testimony explaining how the gates operate and how an officer manually opens the gate to allow visitors to pass through. The officer in charge of the gate on the day of the incident testified that he did not press any buttons while the plaintiff was stepping through. Further, he testified that a safety sensor should have halted the gate. However, the plaintiff failed to present evidence explaining whether a malfunction could cause the gate to close unexpectedly.

Florida’s res ipsa loquitur doctrine, provides injury victims with a “common-sense” inference of negligence where there is a lack of direct proof. In Latin, res ipsa loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself.” However, this only applies when there are other facts consistent with negligence. Courts permit this instruction when a plaintiff establishes that the harmful instrumentality was under the defendant’s exclusive control. Essentially, a plaintiff must meet the initial burden establishing probable negligence. Plaintiffs must understand that the doctrine does not require them to eliminate all possible causes of an accident. Instead, they must merely show that a reasonable person could find that it is more likely than not that negligence caused the accident.

Recently, a Florida appeals court issued an opinion in a lawsuit brought by an injured cyclist against Pinellas County. Historically, sovereign immunity protects governmental entities and officials from lawsuits stemming from the performance of their official government duties. However, in the interest of fairness, the federal government (as well as most states) provides waivers to this immunity. Florida permits individuals to sue the government in certain situations, but does not allow plaintiffs to recover punitive damages or compensation over $200,000.

In the case above, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the county for injuries he suffered when he lost control of his bike and fell into a ditch in an intersection maintained by the county. The plaintiff testified that he was heading west, approaching the intersection when he noticed a car stopped in the northbound lane. He wanted to proceed south but was not sure what the driver was going to do, so he remained on the shoulder of the road. However, the car struck him, and he blacked out.

The plaintiff claimed that the county was responsible for his damages because they negligently maintained the roadway and failed to warn motorists, pedestrians, and bikers of the road’s dangerous condition. The plaintiff contended that the intersection’s shoulder lacked clear zones and slopes for bikers. The lower court let the case against the government proceed, but in response, the county claimed that they were not responsible because the plaintiff could not prove that they were the cause of the accident or his injuries. The court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, but the plaintiff appealed, arguing that there were genuine issues of material fact that remain unresolved.

Earlier this month, the District Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion in a Florida premises liability case illustrating the difficulties some plaintiffs have when pursuing claims arising from injuries sustained while engaging in recreational activity on another party’s property. The case presented the court with the opportunity to clarify seemingly confusing language in the state’s recreational-use statute. Ultimately, the court resolved the issue in favor of the government defendant, and the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was rollerblading on a street in Delray Beach when he ran into a pothole and fell. He sustained serious injuries in the fall and subsequently filed a premises liability lawsuit against the city. The plaintiff claimed that the city failed to safely maintain the public roadway.

The city claimed that the plaintiff was rollerblading in an area where he was not permitted to do so and that the city should not be held liable. Furthermore, the city pointed to the state’s recreational use statute, which provided immunity to landowners when someone is injured while rollerblading.

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In a recent decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Manfre v. Shinkle, the court examined whether a jury correctly found that the defendant, a local sheriff, was liable for injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident. Although the accident at issue occurred at night on an unlit, rural road, the lack of light only played a marginal role. Instead, the crash was principally caused by the plaintiff’s collision with a dead horse, which the plaintiff claimed was in her path because of a local deputy’s negligent investigation of a report of roaming animals.

The accident at the heart of Manfre occurred shortly before sunrise on a dark road in rural Flagler County. The plaintiff was traveling at about 45 miles per hour when her vehicle struck a dead horse and flipped. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered a variety of physical injuries. About an hour and a half before this accident, the county’s Sheriff’s Office received a call that reported two horses were roaming on the side of the road where the accident occurred. A deputy responded to the scene, where he saw the horses returning to the pasture. Evidence presented at trial indicated that the horses may have been spooked by the sheriff’s headlights. Satisfied that the horses’ return to the pasture settled the issue, the deputy cleared the call and left the scene without either ensuring that the horses were now safely enclosed or contacting the property owner. Following the deputy’s departure, at least one of the horses returned to the road, where it was struck by a vehicle and killed. It was the dead horse with which the plaintiff’s vehicle collided.

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Many jobs come with inherent risks, and although safety precautions often help prevent those risks from materializing into actual harm, precaution is occasionally insufficient. In a recent case, Vitrano v. Florida Power & Light Co., the Fourth District Court of Appeal looked at the passing of a tree trimmer who died from an inadvertent electrocution. Specifically, the Court had to determine whether the trial court had erred in denying the plaintiff’s request for a negligence per se jury instruction in a trial against the power company.

The decedent in this case was hired to trim the tree outside a South Florida home. A few days prior to the date the homeowner enlisted the decedent to trim his trees, a Florida Power & Light (“FPL”) representative had visited the homeowner’s abode and observed that the palm fronds on the homeowner’s tree were too close to the power lines. The representative told the homeowner of the issue and told the homeowner that FPL would arrange to have the trees trimmed. The homeowner declined the offer because he had already intended to have the trees trimmed. The representative, however, did not tell the homeowner that the tree nearest the line presented the greatest risk and that the homeowner should not have that tree trimmed. In addition, FPL did not provide a guard for the power line. Shortly thereafter, the decedent and his employees came to the homeowner’s home to perform the trimming work. The decedent started to climb the ladder, which a helper steadied at its base. The helper testified that a short time afterward he heard what sounded to be an electrical sound and saw the decedent fall from the ladder to the ground. He further testified that the palm fronds nearest the power lines seemed to be burned and appeared to be directly in contact with the power line. The decedent died as a result of the shock or his fall.

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A common legal issue that arises in the context of imprisonment or other forms of detention is liability for failing to provide or negligently providing medical care to those detained. Irrespective of the location of medical malpractice, however, common evidentiary standards required for medical malpractice actions apply. These issues are at the core of the Southern District of Florida’s recent decision in Segundo v. United States, which involves claims alleging negligence on the part of the medical staff leading to the cardiac death of a detainee at Krome Detention Center in South Florida.

The detainee had been transferred to Krome Detention Center in 2010, and his Transfer Summary noted his severe, preexisting diabetes. At the time of booking, the detainee underwent a medical evaluation that corroborated this prior medical history of diabetes. Following admission, the detainee continued to take oral diabetic medications, and his blood glucose level was checked twice a day. The admission medical evaluation also included a screening EKG, the results of which came back normal and did not indicate any acute or chronic myocardial ischemic changes or other findings associated with coronary artery disease. From the time of his arrival until the day before his death, the detainee did not complain of chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, or other symptoms associated with cardiac dysfunction.

However, the day before his death, Krome medical staff evaluated the detainee for a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. The day after, the detainee stated he felt ill but was nonetheless communicative and able to move. While staff was taking the detainee to the Urgent Care Center at the Krome compound, he suffered an arrhythmia and died. A autopsy report found the detainee’s cause of death to be severe atheroscleros in the left anterior descending coronary artery. Given the normal EKG just days before the death, no evidence in the record suggested that medical staff at Krome should have predicted the subsequent cardiac death. Following the detainee’s death, the personal representative for his estate brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Torts Claims Act, alleging negligence on the part of Krome’s officers, agents, and employees.

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Seventeen years after his mother was involuntarily administered laxatives by medical professionals acting at the behest of federal agents, Jordan Taylor took the stand in a Miami-Dade County Courthouse on Monday to discuss the circumstances of his life that could be linked to that regrettable event.

On February 14, 1997, Taylor’s mother was detained by Customs Enforcement agents who suspected she was smuggling drugs into the United States. For the following three days, the mother, who is a U.S. citizen by birth and was seven months pregnant at the time, was held at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where medical professionals acting under the direction of the aforementioned Customs officials administered prescription laxatives in order to determine whether she was in fact carrying drugs.

The laxative administered to her, called GoLytely, had not been recommended for pregnant women in 1997, and its effects had not yet been studied in either pregnant women or pregnant animals. According to the complaint, Taylor’s mother complained of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding, but pressure to take the laxative persisted. Shortly after this unwanted stay at Jackson Memorial, she prematurely gave birth to Taylor.

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