Florida Appeals Court Grants City Sovereign Immunity in Police Officer Car Accident Case

In a recent appeals case, the District Court of Appeals of the State of Florida Fifth District produced an opinion for an appeal involving sovereign immunity for the city of Winter Park in a vicarious liability case involving an off-duty police officer. The plaintiff, a driver involved in the car accident with the police officer, sued the defendant, the city of Winter Park, alleging that Winter Park was vicariously liable for the officer’s purportedly negligent driving. The city of Winter Park moved for summary judgment on sovereign immunity grounds at trial. Following the completion of the discovery process, the trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that the issue of whether the officer was within the scope of his employment was a fact question. Winter Park then filed a timely appeal.

The incident in question occurred on June 17, 2019, when Officer Rojas, a police officer in Winter Park, was involved in a car accident in Casselberry, a municipality in Seminole County. Officer Rojas receives a “take-home” patrol vehicle to drive to and from work and for use during each shift. On the day of the accident, Officer Rojas testified that his shift ended at 3:00 p.m. and shortly thereafter, he left the police station in his take-home patrol vehicle. Roughly 30 minutes after his shift ended, he was involved in a car accident along his customary route home.

The crash occurred in Casselberry, which is beyond the Winter Park city limits. Officer Rojas was not performing any duties as a police officer following the end of his shift, though he was in his Winter Park police uniform. Ultimately, the trial court ruled that the question of if Officer Rojas was within the scope of his employment was a disputed issue of material fact for a jury to resolve. Winter Park appealed, maintaining that it is entitled to sovereign immunity as a matter of law.

Following the denial of summary judgment, Winter Park appealed, asserting that as the crash occurred while Officer Rojas was on his regular commute home, he was not within the scope of his employment as a matter of law. Subsequently, they argue that Winter Park is entitled to sovereign immunity and, in turn, summary judgment against the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff maintains on appeal that the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to find that Officer Rojas was acting within the scope of his employment, precluding sovereign immunity.

The appeals court opinion states that there is no dispute that the accident occurred after Officer Rojas’s shift ended while he was on his normal route home. Point out that, as a matter of law, Officer Rojas was a commuter driving home at the time of the accident, not an employee acting within the scope of his employment. The court further points out that the fact that Officer Rojas was driving an official vehicle or that he was in uniform does not change its analysis. Subsequently, the appeals court reversed and remanded the trial court decision, granting the motion for summary judgment to Winter Park.

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