3rd DCA Denies Vicarious Liability for Those Aiding in Defense

Florida tends to have broad interpretation with regard to vicarious liability in car accident cases. That is, while third parties generally aren’t liable for the actions of someone else, Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine provides that a vehicle is an inherently dangerous tool. Therefore, vehicle owners in Florida are subject to liability anytime that vehicle, driven negligently by a third party with the owner’s knowledge and consent, is involved in a serious crash.
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However, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal in Miccosukee Tribe v. Bermudez recently declined to extend this kind of vicarious liability to individuals who aid in a legal defense. The argument in favor of extending liability was based on case law that pertained largely to attorney’s fees, the court found, and could not be used as a basis to require a third party to pay for damages incurred by another person or entity.

Our car accident attorneys in Fort Lauderdale recognize this ruling limits the circumstances under which plaintiffs can pursue other parties for injury compensation. However, the overall impact is likely minimal, as the case involved a series of special circumstances.

The case involved a drunk driver who is a member of an American Indian tribe in South Florida. She was reportedly drunk the night she crashed into another vehicle, killing one woman and seriously injuring a father and son.

The plaintiffs sued the driver for damages, and the driver’s father was also listed as a defendant because he was the owner of the vehicle (per the dangerous instrumentality doctrine). After several years of ongoing litigation, wherein the defendant’s legal costs were covered by the tribe, the jury returned a verdict of $3.1 million in favor of the plaintiffs.

That was in 2009, and the family has yet to receive any of that money. The defendants say they have no assets to pay. However, the tribe has continued to defend the two in various legal challenges pertaining to efforts by the plaintiffs to collect on the judgment. In fact, the tribe’s legal expenses for the pair since the verdict has exceeded the original judgment amount.

Finally, the plaintiffs sought to hold the tribe responsible to pay the judgment. The primary argument was based on a series of cases wherein nonparties to a civil action could be deemed a party for purposes of paying costs and covering attorney’s fees.

While the trial court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, the appellate court reversed, indicating the precedent was troubling. Case law cited had to do with attorney’s fees for frivolous filings without the client’s knowledge or consent. There was in fact no case law, the court indicated, that supported requiring third parties to pay for damages incurred by another person. To do so, the court found, would have a host of unintended consequences. For example, a parent offering advice and covering legal expenses for an adult child might be pulled in as a party in order to help cover costs. The court found such a ruling would be inherently unfair.

The court did criticize the tribe, saying it belied logic that the tribe would continue to pour money into the legal defense of two members, when it could have simply paid the judgment for a lesser amount than what it had spent winning the fight. Still, there was no way the court could force the organization to pay.

In cases like this, your attorney can help you pursue a series of legal actions to compel compliance with a civil judgment. These can include court orders requiring garnishment of wages, bank accounts and funds paid to the defendant’s business. In some instances, liens can be placed on the person’s vehicle, home and other property. Identifying defendants with available resources at the outset of a case can also help prevent such hallow victories.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:
Miccosukee Tribe v. Bermudez, July 2, 2014, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal
More Blog Entries:
2nd DCA Upholds $1.1M Verdict for Florida Car Accident Victim, June 30, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog