Case No. 5D14-3368 __ So.3d __, 2016 WL 438227 (Fla. 5th DCA 2016)
On a dark and unlit road shortly before sunrise, Kathleen Shinkle was driving her automobile in a rural part of Flagler County when she struck a dead horse lying on the roadway. She was traveling at approximately forty-five miles per hour, and the collision with the dead animal caused her vehicle to flip over and land on its roof. Shinkle suffered serious injuries. She filed suit against James Manfre as Sheriff of Flagler County. The suit was filed against the Sheriff because before the crash, a deputy had responded to a report of two horses running loose. When he approached them in his car, they ran back into the pasture. The deputy left without getting out of his car. One of the horses later left the pasture again and apparently was struck and killed by another motorist. The horse was lying dead in the road when the plaintiff arrived at the scene and ran into it.
As noted above, Shinkle filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff arguing that the deputy owed a duty of care to all those on the county roads (including Shinkle) and that the deputy broke the duty owed to Shinkle by negligently (wrongly) responding to the call and by failing to contact the presumed owners of the horses or otherwise ensure that the horses would not return to the roadway. The trial court denied the Sheriff’s attempts to get out of the case, which were both premised on the Sheriff’s argument that he owed no common law or statutory duty of care to Shinkle. Shinkle argued that even if the Sheriff owed her no common law or statutory duty of care, he owed her a special tort duty of care. The Sheriff presented an alternative argument that even if he owed Shinkle a duty of care, the acts alleged were protected by sovereign immunity (governmental immunity). Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Shinkle. The trial court subsequently rendered judgment in her favor with the additur included in the final amount of damages.
On appeal to the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal, the Court was presented with the issues of whether the Sheriff owed a duty of care (either common law or statutory) to Shinkle and, if a duty was owed, whether the action is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity (governmental immunity).
The court held that the sheriff did not owe the plaintiff a statutory duty of care under Florida law which requires the sheriff “where livestock is found to be running at large or straying, to take up, confine, hold, and impound any such livestock …”. The court held the statute imposes only a “public duty” on the sheriff, not a duty to any individual.
The sheriff did not owe the plaintiff a special duty because the sheriff did not take control of the situation so as to place anybody within a zone of risk.
The sheriff did not owe a duty under the undertaker’s doctrine because there was no evidence that anything the deputy did increased the danger or zone of risk to anyone, and because the plaintiff could not have relied on anything the deputy did.