Florida Appeals Court Finds in Favor of Plaintiff on Sovereign Immunity Issue

In a recent case, the District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida Second District issued an opinion in an appeal involving the City of Tampa’s (the City) motion to dismiss a citizen’s action against the city for negligence and loss of consortium. The suit resulted from an incident where the citizen was struck by a vehicle while cycling on a bike lane in Tampa. The cyclist was struck between the traffic lanes of West Cleveland Street in Tampa.

The trial court found in favor of the plaintiff, the citizen, in issuing the nonfinal order denying the City’s motion to dismiss the action. After the plaintiff filed a second amended complaint, the City moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff failed to state a cause of action in that the plaintiffs challenged the design of the bike lane, which would be a planning-level decision for which the City is immune from suit. The trial court held a hearing on the motion and ultimately denied it, determining that the second amended complaint contained adequate allegations to state a cause of action. The City then appealed. On appeal, the City argued that the trial court erred in denying the motion because the plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege that the City had a duty to warn of a specific danger to cyclists and that therefore it is sovereignly immune from suit.

The appellate decision stated that Sovereign immunity is an affirmative defense that is not properly asserted in a motion to dismiss unless “the complaint itself conclusively establishes its applicability.” Further, the opinion stated Liability cannot be imposed when the government exercises its discretionary, planning-level function; however, operational-level decisions are not so immune. To that point, the appellate court stated that, while the City’s actual design and construction of the bike lane may have been a planning-level decision immune from liability if the execution of that planning-level decision created a dangerous condition, the City’s failure to warn users of the bike lane about that dangerous condition would be an operational function that is not immune from liability. Subsequently, the appellate court held that the plaintiff’s second amended complaint was sufficient to open the courthouse door at the motion to dismiss stage because the facts pleaded did not conclusively establish that the claims were barred as a matter of law, ruling against the defendants and affirming the trial court decision.

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