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.
In Florida, a public employee can still be held personally accountable for their negligence if the actions performed were not within the scope of their employment, or if the act of negligence was so extreme that it would qualify as “gross negligence” under the law. Although the article does not state which of the arguments against qualified immunity were applied to this specific case, either or both could have been used to reject a qualified immunity claim. Forcing a child who has not been accused of a crime to cross a busy highway without protection is probably not an activity that falls within the course of employment of a sheriff’s officer. Furthermore, forcing a 12-year-old to cross a busy road is such a reckless and wanton act, that it would likely qualify as gross negligence and invalidate a qualified immunity claim.
Ultimately, the defendants’ qualified immunity claims were rejected by the court, and the case went through a trial. After the trial, the jury awarded the family of the dead boy $15 million from the defendant. Although no sum can ever be sufficient to compensate someone for the loss of a child, the amount should help the family feel somewhat vindicated by the justice system. Hopefully, this verdict will encourage police departments across the state to train their officers better and hold them accountable to minimum standards of service to prevent needless deaths.
Speak with a South Florida Personal Injury Lawyer About Your Case Today
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in a car accident or other dangerous situation in Florida, you may be entitled to compensation for your loss. Whether the negligent party was a private citizen, a public employee, or even a respected law enforcement officer, you still have rights, and should not be afraid to seek the compensation that you deserve. The experienced Florida personal injury attorneys with Friedman, Rodman, Frank, and Estrada can help you pursue whatever claims may be necessary to right the situation and make you whole again. Call our office at 877-448-8585 or contact us online to schedule your free consultation.