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.
Following the accident, the plaintiff brought suit against the local sheriff, arguing generally that the deputy’s negligence in responding to the call resulted in the horse returning to the road, where it ultimately led to the accident. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, and a jury found the sheriff liable and awarded damages to the plaintiff. Prior to trial, the trial court denied the sheriff’s motion for summary judgment, and during trial it denied the sheriff’s motion for a directed verdict. Following trial, the defendant brought the current appeal.
The key issue on appeal was whether the sheriff owed a duty of care to the plaintiff motorist. Whether a duty of care exists under particular circumstances is typically an issue for the court, rather than the jury, to decide. See Wallace v. Dean, 3 So. 3d 1035, 1046 (Fla. 2009). With respect to whether a duty of care exists when the alleged negligent actor is a government official, the public-duty doctrine is implicated. See id. at 1047. The central inquiry under the public-duty doctrine is whether the common law or statutory authority provides for a duty of care under the circumstances leading to the particular plaintiff’s harm. Id. at 1045. Accordingly, a duty of care does not exist simply because a general public duty exists. See, e.g., Willingham v. City of Orlando, 929 So. 2d 43, 50 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006) (“There [is] no governmental liability unless a common law or statutory duty of care exist[s] that [is] applicable to [the] individual”)
In this case, the plaintiff argued that a statutory duty of care existed under Fla. Stat. § 588.16, which provides that “[i]t shall be the duty of the sheriff . . . where livestock is found to be running at large or straying, to take up, confine, hold, and impound [the] livestock.” Although the terms of § 588.16 would seem to provide for a duty of care that applies to the sheriff, the court, reviewing the history of the statute, noted that it was part of a larger Act that was designed to impose a duty on livestock owners, not government officials. See Zuppardo v. O’Hare, 487 So. 2d 39, 40 (Fla. 2d DCA 1986); see also Fla. Stat. § 588.15 (providing for liability of livestock owners for injuries arising from the failure to keep animals contained). In light of the fact the law provides more concretely for the liability of the livestock owners, the Court concluded that § 588.16 was not, in fact, designed to create statutory liability for the sheriff for failing to contain livestock. In addition, the court noted that the duty created by § 588.16 was, at most, a general duty owed to the public, rather than a circumscribed duty owed to particular people in the plaintiff’s circumstances.
As is to be expected, there are exceptions to the limitation imposed by the public-duty doctrine. First, pursuant to the special tort duty exception, a duty of care may arise “when [a] law enforcement officer become[s] directly involved in circumstances [that] place[s] people within a ‘zone of risk.’” Wallace, 3 So. 3d at 1048. The Fifth District, however, found the plaintiff’s recourse to the special tort duty exception unavailing because the deputy neither created the risk nor took control of the situation. The court noted that at most the sheriff’s report to the scene lessened any risk posed by the horse, which returned to the pasture upon his arrival. For similar reasons, the Fifth District rejected the plaintiff’s invocation of the undertaker’s doctrine, which provides that “one who undertakes to act,” even in the absence of an obligation to act, “becomes obligated to act with reasonable care.” Union Park Mem’l Chapel v. Hutt, 670 So. 2d 64, 66-67 (Fla. 1996). As stated before, the deputy never acted to take control of the situation and therefore did not undertake any action for which a reasonable duty of care arose. Given that neither exception applied and that no statutory or common law duty of care applied under the circumstances, the Fifth District found that the trial court erred in finding that a duty of care existed and denying the defendant’s motions for summary judgment and for a directed verdict.
Although many imagine the end of a trial resulting in a favorable verdict to be the end of matters, experienced litigators understand that a favorable verdict may only mean the beginning of a protracted appellate battle. Indeed, those injured as a result of possible negligence would be well served to enlist the assistance of counsel experienced in not only the intricacies of trial practice but also the nuances of appellate advocacy. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented a variety of injured Floridian motorists, and they are prepared to help you pursue a possible claim in either state or federal court. If you’ve been injured as a result of the possible negligence of another and are curious about the legal recourse you may have, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.