Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine is one of the most important legal protections available to those who have been injured by someone’s use of dangerous tool, machine, car, or truck. It makes the owners of those machines responsible for whatever damage, injury, or death the devices may cause regardless of who was operating them at the time.
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For example, when you lend your car to your friend, coworker, or parent—to just drive to McDonald’s to pick up a McRib—and that person runs a red light, causing a crash while you are home taking a nap, you are as responsible for that crash as though you were behind the wheel yourself. It is a brilliant and powerful means of compensating the injured and placing a sense of caution and accountability on those who own the machines as to whom they voluntarily let use them.
The law has been applied to various devices and is the center of ongoing litigation in Florida as to what kinds of machines can be considered “dangerous” enough to hold their owners responsible or allow them to escape liability. Recently, Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal reviewed the dismissal of a Pinellas County Florida trial judge’s order against a man who had lost a finger while working as an independent contractor for a debris-clearing company on a private residential lot.
The device in question, a menacing looking Bobcat model 257B3 front bucket loader, weighs over 8000 pounds, travel at 7.1 miles per hour, and can lift a one-ton load nine feet into the air. It was leased from Caterpillar Financial Services, and the man’s lawsuit alleged that it was an instance of “dangerous instrumentality,” in the hopes of holding Caterpillar responsible for the loss of his finger.
Without saying any more about this, guess what happens when man with lost finger sues one of the largest owners of heavy machinery in the State of Florida? Spoiler Alert: Of course the case was dismissed and affirmed on appeal, meaning that Caterpillar was found not responsible, and the injured man was unable to collect from them.
Let us examine how the court came to its conclusion:
Whether or not the Bobcat in this case constitutes an instance of dangerous instrumentality presents a “pure question of law”—meaning that a judge and not a jury would decide the question. Accordingly, both sides, the injured man and Caterpillar, submitted expert-witness affidavits. Not surprisingly, the man’s expert opined that the device was a dangerous tool, and of course Caterpillar’s expert disagreed. In my opinion, that situation ought to have been enough to let a jury decide the issue. Of course not—when faced with an opportunity to dispose of an entire case in favor of a large corporate defendant, judge after judge seems unable to resist the temptation.
The court’s primary rationale in dismissing this case was based on its opinion that the Bobcat was not a “motor vehicle” and was “unregulated” because Florida’s legislature does not consider vehicles used for construction to be “motor vehicles” but rather assigns them to a “special” category. Ironically, the Bobcat owner’s manual refers to the Bobcat as a motor vehicle and even provides specific instructions as to how to modify the machine to operate it on streets and highways. It also should be noted that these kinds of machines are in fact heavily regulated—just not by the kind of regulation the court found to be appropriate. I wonder why?
Obviously a front loader can transport both a person and property, albeit not typically on a public highway. Without question it is a large, powerful piece of equipment that requires a skilled operator and can cause tremendous destruction. The court is making a seemingly minor distinction—with severe legal consequences—which in the end serves only to foster and protect the interests of the corporate defendant at the expense of an injured human being.
This case provides a painful reminder: The injured face an uphill battle in Florida to obtain reasonable and fair monetary compensation or reimbursement for medical bills, time lost from work, disabilities, and pain and suffering.
Contacting a Miami Personal Injury Lawyer
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