In Florida, our personal injury lawyers have surprised people when we explain that law enforcement agencies could be liable for personal injuries and law enforcement agencies are not completely immune from liability. Law enforcement officers have a duty to the public generally. The duty owed to the public, however, is not actionable under Florida tort law unless the police take additional steps to place someone in harm’s way and create a special duty of care. Law enforcement officers are liable for damages when they are obligated to care for another person and fail to do so properly. Florida courts call this the “undertaker doctrine.” In short, the undertaker doctrine compels the police to perform reasonably after the begin to care for another person. The undertaker theory of negligence avoids the sometimes harsh consequences of sovereign immunity.
As personal injury attorneys we have seen facts similar to those that gave rise to the case of Wallace v. Dean. In that case, a woman died after falling into a diabetic coma. The woman’s daughter, who lived out of state, could not reach her mother by telephone. Consequently, she called a neighbor for assistance. The neighbor went to check on the woman. The neighbor called 911 when she could not wake the woman. Two sheriff’s deputies arrived and examined the woman. They vigorously tried to wake her but could not. They determined she was still breathing and was probably just sleeping because she was snoring despite shaking her violently in an effort to wake her up. When questioned about the decision not to call an ambulance, one of the deputies responded by saying that people in a diabetic coma do not snore. The deputies left after determining that medical personnel need not be summoned. Later that morning, the woman could not be roused. An ambulance took her to a local hospital where she died a few days later after never regaining consciousness. Law enforcement officers enjoy immunity from liability for their actions unless they owe a special duty of care to another. The special duty of care occurs when the officers are directly involved in the situation that puts people in harm’s way by either creating a hazard or allowing a hazard to persist or by taking someone into custody. Police also owe a special duty of care to anyone whom they placed in danger by their actions.
Police officers are also liable without a finding of a special duty owed to a person when they undertake a certain course of action. Under Florida law, once a person begins to act in a particular manner, that person must do so with reasonable care. Thus, if anything this individual does while engaged in the particular course of actions causes an injury to someone, the person who undertook the responsibility to act is responsible for the damage resulting from the actor’s negligence.
Thus, in the Wallace case, the deputies may not enjoy immunity for their actions if they negligently undertook the care of the person who died. The deputies did everything right when the undertook the care of the decedent by analyzing the decedent’s medical situation except call for rescue. The reasonably prudent police officer in those circumstances would call for medical personnel to further assess the patient. Their failure to act accordingly causes them, or their Sheriff, to face civil liability for their inactions. If they had acted sooner, the decedent might have survived.
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