Future Of Wrongful Death Lawsuit Uncertain After Narrow Court Of Appeals Decision

Future Of Wrongful Death Lawsuit Uncertain After Narrow Court Of Appeals Decision

Your Charleston personal injury attorneys at Howell Law found an interesting wrongful death case that alleges police owed a duty to protect the decedent’s safety after his arrest and release from police custody. The polarizing lawsuit has made its way to the District Court of Appeals in Florida and raises questions about strict adherence of codified (or statutory) law and the interpretation of applicable common law principles. However, the judgments do not concern case resolution, rather the holdings discussed below determine whether the Plaintiff’s (decedent’s father) wrongful death claim meets the minimum threshold to establish a duty of care, a requirement needed for the suit to proceed.

In September 2007 a 24-year-old man was arrested by Boca Raton police for a number of traffic violations. After a night of heavy drinking the 24-year-old man, against the wishes of a family member, got into his truck and began driving erratically. Said family member, a cousin, followed him and called 911. Police took the man into custody, told his cousin to leave, arranged for his truck to be towed, and transported him to the police station. Police issued five traffic citations, none of which were for driving under the influence (DUI), and after calling the man a cab, released him from custody, still noticeably intoxicated. At 5:20 a.m. that morning (about an hour after his release) the man was laying next to railroad tracks a short distance from the police station. An approaching train struck and killed the man. At the time of his death, his blood alcohol level was .199; well over two-times the legal limit.

The man’s father (Plaintiff) filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Boca Raton Police. As mentioned above, the suit claims police had a duty to protect Plaintiff’s son’s safety and not merely release him into the night. The suit was thrown out by the trial judge, a three-judge panel of the court ruled that Plaintiff could proceed with the suit; upon which the City of Boca Raton asked the full appeals court to review the panel’s decision.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach, in a narrow six to five majority decision, ruled that police had no further responsibility for Plaintiff’s son’s safety after he stepped out of the police station door.

The majority opinion cites a Florida Statute that provides police may not release a person whom they arrest for DUI until: the person was no longer under the influence; the person’s blood-alcohol level or breath-alcohol level was less than 0.05; or until eight hours elapsed from the time of the arrest. Noting that, “for whatever reason,” police did not arrest Plaintiff’s son for DUI, said provisions related to the release of an intoxicated person are not applicable in this case. Furthermore, the majority states that police cannot be held liable for the discretionary judgment to not arrest Plaintiff’s son for DUI, citing a previous Florida decision.

Related to Plaintiff’s son’s release from custody, the majority held that police simply did what they were obligated to do after issuing the traffic citations. The son’s release from the police station, which happens to be located near active railroad tracks, is insufficient to impose a duty of care because the police did not create the son’s impaired condition or the surroundings which he was released. Regardless if police were aware of the dangers faced by Plaintiff’s son upon his release, they played not part in creating those dangers, nor do anything to make him more susceptible those dangers. Effectively not placing Plaintiff’s son in a “zone of risk.”

The minority, by contrast, in its dissenting opinion, determined that the Plaintiff’s complaint met the minimum threshold for the case to proceed by establishing a duty of care on the part of police. The dissenting opinion raises the questions of foreseeable risk and reasonable care with regards to Plaintiff’s son’s release from custody. Noting that the police, having made the decision to take responsibility for the transportation needs of the “impaired, drunk, and inebriated” son, were required to act with reasonable care when discharging him from custody. And that, more likely than not, the police created a foreseeable zone of risk that he might suffer serious injuries if their duty of care attendant to his release from custody was not conducted in a reasonable manner. The dissent notes that while a cab was called for the Plaintiff’s son, police did not insure that the man actually got into the cab. Rather police escorted the man to the door and left him to his own impaired devices. But the dissent does not call the manner of the Plaintiff’s son’s release unreasonable. Instead the minority reasoned that a fact finder should answer the question of whether or not the police acted with ordinary care.

Your Charleston, SC lawyers hope our readers found this case thought provoking, informative, and a nice change of pace from the previous sports-related-posts.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals’ opinions can be found in full by clicking HERE.