By the virtue of their employment, law enforcement officers and other public safety officials often find themselves in situations that present a danger to themselves or other members of the public. When people are hurt or killed as a result of negligent police activity, it may be challenging to determine if the law enforcement officer or agency bears some civil responsibility for the loss. On one hand, police officers are human and are forced into dangerous situations very often, holding them accountable for any negligent acts would prevent police from properly performing their duties. On the other hand, law enforcement officers are tasked with protecting the public, and if an officer negligently or intentionally acts in a way that results in the death of an innocent person, there must be some consequences. Florida law addresses these considerations by operating within a framework that allows public employees, including police officers, to be sued personally for damages under some circumstances. A recently published news report discusses a jury verdict recently handed down in a wrongful death case filed by the family of a deceased teenager.
According to the news report discussing the recent jury verdict, the trial centered on the death of a 12-year-old boy who had been visiting the fair on the day he died. According to the report, police officers were called to the fair because some youths were causing a disturbance and committing small crimes. Although some of the youths were arrested or detained, the deceased boy was not accused of any criminal activity, however, the officer chose to eject him from the fair nonetheless. Instead of allowing the child to leave the fair through the exit, the officer forced him to go out of a side exit that had no safe pedestrian access and abutted a busy highway. When attempting to cross the highway, the boy was hit by a vehicle and was pronounced dead at the scene.
The boy’s family pursued a wrongful death claim against the officer and the department in Florida state court. According to the complaint, the officer was grossly negligent in forcing the young child out of the far and onto a busy highway, where he was ultimately killed. In responding to such claims, municipal law enforcement agencies often claim that qualified immunity protected them from being sued. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects public employees (including law enforcement officers) from legal liability for acts of negligence that occur while the employee is acting within the scope of their employment. Qualified immunity has been used in Florida to protect thousands of public employees from the consequences of their negligence, but the protection is not absolute.