Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law” is probably one of the most controversial pieces of legislation I have seen in my nearly 25 years of experience as a practicing accident lawyer in Miami. The law creates an “immunity” from criminal prosecution for those who use “justifiable force,” which includes “deadly force,” to defend themselves from someone who is using “imminent . . . unlawful force.” The law, found in Florida Statute 776, was made infamous in the Trayvon Martin case last year.
How the immunity defense can be used in a separate and subsequent civil lawsuit has recently been interpreted by a Florida appellate court. In that case, the State of Florida charged Jose Alvarez, a roofer, with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for severely and repeatedly beating Derrick Roy Flemmings, a former employee, with a deadly weapon, a baseball bat. The altercation occurred on a job site.
After conducting an evidentiary hearing that included testimony from both Alvarez and his wife, as well as Mr. Flemmings, the criminal court in Miami dismissed the case, finding that Alvarez’s use of the baseball bat was justified under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.
While the criminal case was still pending, Mr. Flemmings filed a personal injury case in Miami against Alvarez and the roofing company for assault, battery, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as for the company’s negligently hiring and retaining Alvarez as an employee.
SUING FOR PERSONAL INJURIES AT WORK
The defendants in the civil case, Alvarez and the roofing company, moved to dismiss the civil law suit on the basis of their acquittal in the criminal case, using the same Stand Your Ground Law as an absolute defense in the personal injury case, too. The civil trial judge denied their motion, without conducting an evidentiary hearing where testimony and evidence would have been submitted. Alvarez and the roofing company appealed the dismissal to Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal.
The appellate court reversed the trial judge’s dismissal but had to look all the way to Colorado law for guidance as to how the case should be handled, since Florida’s statute does not address the civil liability of the Stand Your Ground Law.
The appellate court’s decision to reverse the dismissal was based in part on the criminal case’s involving the State of Florida as the complaining party against Alvarez, in contrast to the civil case, where Mr. Flemmings is the plaintiff against both Alvarez and the roofing company. The court reasoned that this lack of “mutuality of parties” was a missing “critical element” that precluded the civil case’s being bound by the criminal judge’s decision to grant immunity.
USING STAND YOUR GROUND LAW AS A DEFENSE
However, in their opinion the judges provided a roadmap and clear directions as to how this particular case and perhaps future cases could use the Stand Your Ground Law defense, by requiring an evidentiary hearing where a civil trial judge can “weigh factual disputes” by a preponderance of the evidence to determine if a defendant is entitled to the immunity conferred by the Stand Your Ground Law. You can read the Court’s entire opinion here.
As a personal injury lawyer who represents people, not corporations or insurance companies, I agree with the court’s decision; I do not think that the Stand Your Ground Law should automatically provide an absolute defense against a civil lawsuit without a prior weighing of all the facts and evidence in a given case.
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