Many motor vehicle accidents that cause catastrophic injury or even wrongful death involve motorists with no insurance or insufficient coverage. In such situations, the potential liability of government entities for unsafe road design or maintenance becomes an important issue. Government entities have the financial resources to pay a personal injury judgment. Because public entities benefit from sovereign immunity to the extent not waived by tort claims acts, personal injury lawsuits against the State of Florida, counties, or municipalities involve additional issues, special procedures, and tighter deadlines for providing notice of a legal claim.
In Manfre v. Shinkle, the 5th DCA considered whether the Sheriff of Flagler County owed a duty of care to a motorist who hit a dead horse laying in the roadway. The plaintiff filed a tort claim against the sheriff alleging the sheriff was negligent in neutralizing the hazard created by the two horses that were running-at-large near the roadway. The jury returned a verdict for the sheriff.
The plaintiff alleged that the sheriff’s office was notified that two horses had wandered into the road an hour and a half prior to the accident. A deputy was dispatched to the location, and the horses, which were perhaps spooked by the flashing lights, retreated from the roadway to a pasture. The deputy did not get out of the vehicle or talk to the owner of the horses.
Subsequently, the horses wandered back onto the roadway. One of the horses was hit by a car. The plaintiff subsequently slammed into the dead horse and rolled her vehicle. Her lawsuit specifically alleged that the sheriff was negligent in not contacting the owner of the horses to ensure the equine were secured, so they could not migrate back out into the road.
The court first considered the applicability of the public duty doctrine in delineating the relationship between an alleged tort victim and a government entity. The court observed that under the public duty doctrine there are four general categories that inform the duty of care of a government entity toward an individual. The court identified the relevant category in this case as enforcement of laws and protection of the public safety. The court also indicated that since the sheriff owes this duty to enforce the laws and to provide for safety to the general public, the sheriff does not owe this duty to individuals under the public duty doctrine.
The court also rejected the contention that the sheriff owed a special tort duty. The court explained that a government entity owes a duty to an individual under this doctrine only when the government actor has placed the plaintiff within the “zone of risk.” The court clarified this phrase as meaning that the sheriff created or controlled the risk. Since the deputy did not take control over the situation or any individual that would have put the plaintiff within the zone of risk, the court found that the sheriff did not owe a duty of care.
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