Florida Appeals Court Reverses Verdict for Woman Injured By Dead Horse in Road

The Florida Court of Appeals for the Fifth District reversed a trial court’s ruling for a woman injured by a horse corpse in the road, holding that the defendant Sheriff did not owe the injured woman a duty of care.Kathleen Shinkle was driving on a dark road just before sunrise in a rural part of Flagler County when she struck a dead horse lying on the roadway. The collision caused her car to flip over, resulting in serious injuries to Shinkle. She filed suit against the Flagler County Sheriff. The jury returned a verdict for Shinkle. Moreover, the trial court granted her motion for additur (additional damages) and rendered judgment in her favor.

The Sheriff appealed, arguing that he did not owe Shinkle a duty of care, and even if he did, that duty is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

An essential issue in the lawsuit was the Sheriff’s limited involvement with two horses that had escaped their pasture before Shinkle’s accident. An hour and a half prior to the collision, the Sheriff’s Office received a call reporting two horses roaming on the side of the road. A deputy responded to the location and watched the horses run up a driveway toward what appeared to be a pasture. Evidence presented at trial suggested that the glow from the patrol car’s lights may have spooked the horses into returning to their pasture. One of the horses apparently reemerged from the pasture and proceeded to the road, where it was struck and killed by a driver. The dead animal was lying on the roadway when Shinkle came along, struck it, and flipped her car.

In Shinkle’s negligence suit, she alleged that the Sheriff owed a duty of care to all those on country roads (including Shinkle) and that he breached this duty by negligently failing to contact the owners of the horses or otherwise ensure that they would not return to the road. The trial court denied the Sheriff’s motions for summary judgment and directed verdict, which were both premised on the argument that the Sheriff owed no duty of care to Shinkle. After the final judgment was rendered for Shinkle, the Sheriff appealed.

The appeals court first held that the Sheriff owed Shinkle no duty of care by common law or by statute. Regarding the common law, courts have consistently held that the duties to enforce laws and protect citizens are owed to the public, not to specific injured individuals like Shinkle. Moreover, Florida Statutes section 588.13(3) provides that “[l]ivestock ‘running at large’ or ‘straying’ shall mean any livestock…posing a threat to public safety.” Thus, the duty of law enforcement under the statute is to impound livestock that poses a threat to the public, rather than to Shinkle individually. Since the Sheriff owed no common law or statutory duty of care to Shinkle, the appeals court next addressed Shinkle’s argument that a special duty of care was owed to her.

Courts have recognized that certain conduct by law enforcement officers may create a special duty owed to the injured party. The Florida Supreme Court has held that a special tort duty arises when law enforcement officers become directly involved in circumstances that place individuals within a “zone of risk” by:  (1) creating or permitting dangers to exist; (2) taking persons into police custody; (3) detaining them; or (4) otherwise subjecting them to danger. Florida cases have found this special duty created in situations when police officers were on the scene and took control of a situation, and individuals were subsequently injured, or situations when police officers created the zone of risk by their actions.

Here, the deputy did not take control over any situation or individuals so as to place anyone, including Shinkle, within a zone of risk. The Sheriff’s Office never had any contact with Shinkle because her accident occurred about an hour and a half after the deputy observed the horses entering the adjacent pasture. The appeals court rejected Shinkle’s argument that this action created a zone of risk. If the deputy’s presence did anything, it decreased the risk that may have been posed by the horses had they remained on the roadway without first returning to their pasture. Thus, the court concluded that no special duty was owed to Shinkle.

The appeals court next addressed Shinkle’s argument that if a special tort duty was not owed to her, a duty of care was created pursuant to the undertaker’s doctrine, which provides that “one who undertakes to act, even where there is no obligation to do so, becomes obligated to act with reasonable care.” Here, the court concluded, the deputy’s arrival on the scene did not increase the degree of risk. To the contrary, his arrival lessened the risk by causing the horses to reenter the pasture. Accordingly, there was no duty created pursuant to the undertaker’s doctrine.

Since the court concluded the Sheriff owed no duty of care to Shinkle, the court did not need to address the issue of sovereign immunity. Accordingly, the judgment was reversed and remanded.

If you were injured due to another’s negligence, you should contact a dedicated personal injury attorney as soon as you are able. To discuss your right to recover damages with a hardworking South Florida personal injury lawyer, call the experienced advocates at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website today.

Additional Resources:

Manfre v. Shinkle, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 5th Dist. 2016

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