While the conduct of a motorist in disobeying traffic safety laws can constitute important evidence of negligence, Florida law generally bans the introduction of evidence regarding whether a traffic citation was issued to establish a party engaged in the negligent conduct. Our lawyers understand that this distinction might seem confusing, but the illegal conduct and not the issuing of a citation provides the relevant evidence. The rationale for this rule is that the judge or jury should make the determination of fault according to the relevant legal standard, rather than a police officer issuing a citation within his discretion and not subject to the same standard of proof.
Our personal watercraft injury lawyers would like to call attention to a recent decision that extends this principle to accidents involving vessels on waterways like a jet ski, Seadoo, boat, or other personal watercraft. In Soto v. McCulley Marine Services, the defendants’ services were retained to construct an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. While performing the work, the defendants used a barge to transport materials. The barge and accompanying tugboat were moored by a dock in the staging area for a 4th of July celebration near a park with a beach. The area was filled with personal watercrafts because of the holiday and had a reputation for strong currents.
When the engine of the victim’s jet ski stalled, the rider was unable to get the personal watercraft (PWC) restarted. The rider became separated from the PWC; the rider’s body was later located under the barge still equipped with a life vest.
Estate Alleged Negligence in Mooring Vessel Caused Intensified Speed of Current
The estate filed a negligence lawsuit alleging that the captain should have recognized the risk to inexperienced riders of PWCs posed by the location of the docked vessels. The lawsuit also alleged that the captain should have known that the location of the moored barge and tug boat would intensify both the speed and strength of the current. To avoid creating this hidden danger, the complaint alleges the vessels should have been moored at a different location during the busy July 4th celebration activities, or a warning should have been posted.
An important issue of contention in the lawsuit involved the estate’s claim that the vessels did not have an adequate crew while they were docked. During jury deliberations, a juror submitted a question asking whether the captain received a citation for engaging in an illegal act. While the defendants attempted to claim the door was opened to this question because the estate attempted to prove a violation, the district court noted that it is a matter of settled law that the issuance or non-issuance of a citation is not admissible in cases involving cars. The court found that the argument that a violation occurred did not open the door to admitting testimony regarding the issuance of a citation. The district court also indicated that the rule banning the admissibility of evidence regarding the issuance of a citation also should apply to vessels. The court also noted that a jury could find that the defendants’ conduct was negligent given the reasonably anticipated presence of inexperienced jet skiers on a holiday.
Police Officer Citations Cannot Replace Jury Determination of Negligence
The key point is that the judgment of an individual police officer regarding whether the illegal conduct occurred should not be permitted to supplant the independent determination of a jury or judge. The function of the “trier of fact” (judge or jury) in this type of civil trial is to consider the evidence and determine whether the defendant was negligent. While violation of a traffic law or law governing the operation of a vessel on navigable waters can constitute negligence, the judge or jury (not a police officer) must evaluate this question and reach a judgment.
If you have been injured in a boating accident, the South Florida personal injury Attorneys at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to obtain the results you desire. With over 130 collective years of experience representing commercial boating accident victims across South Florida, our firm provides legal representation of unmatched excellence. Contact our firm as soon as possible to start on the road to protecting your legal rights. Our firm received an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and was ranked as a top firm in South Florida by the Miami Herald. Put our exceptional watercraft injury lawyers to work on your case. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or you can visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.