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Newton v. Caterpillar – Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Raised in Work Injury Lawsuit

In many Florida injury lawsuits, plaintiffs must prove the defendant is negligent. That means proving defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff, defendant breached that duty, the breach caused plaintiff’s injuries and the injuries are compensable. However, there are some situations in which one need not prove the defendant was negligent. One can assert vicarious liability for the negligent actions of another person. There are several examples, but one of those stems from ownership of a dangerous instrumentality.

The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is one that stems from common law and it holds that the owner of an inherently dangerous tool is liable for any injuries resulting from the operation of that tool. It’s a form of strict vicarious liability. In Florida, the 1938 state supreme court case of Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson resulted in the finding that motor vehicles are a type of dangerous instrumentality. That’s why an owner of a motor vehicle in Florida can be held liable for injuries caused by someone else’s negligent operation of said vehicle. The idea is that if you trust someone with a motor vehicle with knowledge and consent, you are responsible if it’s used negligently on a public road.

But there are questions that arise occasionally about what other objects may be considered a dangerous instrumentality. It matters a great deal when we’re considering which persons or entities can be liable. One such case recently before Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal was that of Newton v. Caterpillar et al, stemming from a work injury. 

According to court records, plaintiff was an independent contractor hired by a hauling company to assist its agent in clearing debris off a private lowed in a residential neighborhood. To complete this job, plaintiff used a Bobcat model loader. The hauling company didn’t own the loader, but rather leased it from a separate company. The loader was transported in a box truck to the property, taken off the trailer and then taken briefly onto a public street before being driven onto the private lot.

The pair used the machine to dump debris from the lot into the trailer to be disposed of. At one point, they were attempting to move a tree stump into the trailer. Plaintiff was inside the trailer and tried to warn the other worker, who was operating the loader, to wait because he was still inside. The other worker did not hear him. Plaintiff tried to climb over the side but the stump was dropped into the bucket and rolled back onto plaintiff’s hand, severing his finger.

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the owner of the loader (who had leased it to the hauling company), arguing the owner was vicariously liable because the loader was a dangerous instrumentality.

In court, both sides sought summary judgment on the issue of whether the loader should be considered a dangerous instrumentality. The trial court entered a judgment in favor of defendant, and the appellate court affirmed.

The factors considered include:

  • The extent to which an object is regulated by law, which is a recognition of the danger posed;
  • The relative danger posed by the object;
  • The physical characteristics of the object;
  • Whether the object is operated in close proximity to the public.

There is no single determinant factor, but the court held that when considering each of these, the application of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine to the loader was not justified.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Newton v. Caterpillar et al, Dec. 14, 2016, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal

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Arellano v. Broward K-9 – Dog Bite Liability Challenged, Dec. 17, 2016, Palm Beach Injury Attorney Blog

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