On the surface, the issue of liability in a bar room brawl would seemingly be limited to those involved. However, the Florida Supreme Court in Dorsey v. Reider ruled that third parties can be held liable where the plaintiff can show those parties owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care, and that this duty was breached.
As West Palm Beach personal injury lawyers, we know that a criminal assault can leave a victim wounded for life. It’s important in these cases to explore the legal culpability of all potentially negligent parties, and not solely rely on the criminal justice system for the possibility of restitution.
This case started among acquaintances at a neighborhood bar in Pinecrest, and eventually made it all the way to the state supreme court.
According to court records, the victim, the defendant and the assailant were all drinking together at a local bar, and all three were intoxicated. At some point, the defendant reportedly became “boisterous and belligerent,” attempting to pick a fight with “everyone.” The victim finally told the defendant (in so many words) that his behavior was unacceptable, and he stood up and walked out of the bar.
The defendant and the assailant followed the victim out of the bar, demanding to know why he had “disrespected” the defendant. The victim ignored the two and kept walking. As the victim walked away, his path took him in between two vehicles. The two men trapped him on either side.
After several minutes of verbal confrontation, the assailant entered his truck (one of the two vehicles the victim stood between), grabbed a tomahawk and a physical struggle ensued, wherein the victim was struck in the head with the tool and rendered unconscious. The defendant and the assailant fled the scene.
Once the victim regained consciousness, he drove himself to the hospital.
Later, the defendant would say he remembered nothing about the tomahawk or the assault.
The victim sued his former friend. A jury rendered a verdict in favor of the victim, awarding him $10,300 for medical expenses, $41,000 for lost wages, $670,000 for past pain and suffering and $850,000 for future pain and suffering.
Upon appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded for a judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant did not owe a relevant duty of care to the plaintiff, as the plaintiff had been attacked by a third party. The court conceded that the defendant’s actions in resisting the plaintiff’s efforts to escape allowed the attacker the chance to strike, but the court found no evidence that the defendant “colluded with” the attacker.
However, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision, finding that neither advance knowledge or collusion with an attacker are tests for determining a duty of care under the circumstances.
The high court indicated that there are four potential sources of legal duty of care, one of those being those arising from the general facts of the case. When a person’s conduct is such that it creates a “foreseeable zone of risk” that would pose a general threat of harm to others, this can be determined as an act of negligence if harm occurs.
Generally, one person has no legal duty to prevent the misconduct of another person. However, because the defendant’s actions in blocking the victim’s escape resulted in a “foreseeable zone of risk,” the court held that he did owe a duty of care to the victim, and that duty was breached. Therefore, the district court’s initial ruling was allowed to stand.
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Dorsey v. Reider, March 27, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
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Liability for Frat House Injuries in Fort Lauderdale, March 2, 2014, Boynton Beach Personal Injury Lawyer Blog