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Dorsey v. Reider, Case No. SC12-2197 (Florida Supreme Court)

In Dorsey, the Florida Supreme Court provided insight on the duty element of a negligence claim. Dorsey brought suit against Reider for injuries sustained by Dorsey when he and Reider were at a bar together with another friend of Reider’s who Dorsey did not know. After leaving the bar, Dorsey and Reider got into an argument, which culminated with Reider’s friend knocking Dorsey unconscious using a tomahawk. The Third DCA reversed and remanded for entry of judgment in Reider’s favor, ruling that Reider did not owe a relevant duty of care to Dorsey when Dorsey was attacked by Reider’s friend, not Reider. The Florida Supreme Court found that the Third District applied the incorrect test in determining whether Reider owed a duty of care to Dorsey.

The Florida Supreme Court noted that duties of care arise from four potential sources: (1) legislative enactments or administrative regulations; (2) judicial interpretations of such enactments or regulations; (3) other judicial precedent; and (4) a duty arising from the general facts of the case. Focusing on the fourth category, the court explained that the determination of the existence of a common law duty flowing from the general facts of the case depends upon an evaluation and application of the concept of foreseeability of harm to the circumstances alleged. “When a person’s conduct is such that it creates a ‘foreseeable zone of risk’ posing a general threat of harm to others, a legal duty will ordinarily be recognized to ensure the conduct is carried out reasonably.” The duty element of negligence focuses on whether the defendant’s conduct foreseeably created a broader zone of risk that poses a general threat of harm to others. The court noted that this is a minimal threshold legal requirement for opening the courthouse doors. Once the courthouse doors are open, the proximate cause element remains, and is concerned with whether and to what extent the defendant’s conduct foreseeably and substantially caused the specific injury that actually occurred.

The court further explained the type of foreseeability required to establish duty as opposed to that required to establish proximate cause. “[E]stablishing the existence of a duty is primarily a legal question and requires demonstrating that the activity at issue created a general zone of foreseeable danger of harm to others. Establishing proximate cause requires a factual showing that the dangerous activity foreseeably caused the specific harm suffered by those claiming injury.” The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Reider’s conduct in blocking Dorsey’s ability to escape from an escalating situation created a foreseeable zone of risk posing general threat of harm to others. Thus, Reider owed a duty of care.

The Florida Supreme Court then turned to the question of whether Reider’s duty to Dorsey extended to injuriescaused by the misconduct of a third person. Generally, a party has no legal duty to prevent the misconduct of third persons. There are exceptions to the general rule where the defendant is in actual or constructive control of (1) the instrumentality, (2) the premises on which the tort was committed, or (3) the tortfeasor. The Florida Supreme Court found that the Third District incorrectly applied the foreseeable zone of risk test by evaluating whether the type of negligent act involved has so frequently previously resulted in the same type of injury or harm that in the field of human experience the same type of result may be expected again. The court stated that its prior case law relating to duty made clear that “the proper inquiry for the reviewing appellate court is whether the defendant’s conduct created a foreseeable zone of risk, not whether the defendant could foresee the specific injury that actually occurred.” The court ruled that Reider’s conduct created a broader zone of foreseeable risk to Dorsey.

The court therefore turned to whether the duty of care created by Reider’s conduct extends to the misconduct of the third party. The court found that Reider was present and had the ability to control access to his truck in which the tomahawk was located. The court further found that Reider had a remote key device in his pocket. Reider therefore did not merely provide access to the tomahawk, he blocked Dorsey’s escape and was present when the instrument was used to injure Dorsey. Reider was in a position to retake control of the tomahawk and prevent the injury. The Florida Supreme Court thus concluded that the totality of the circumstances takes the case out of the general rule that one is not liable for injuries caused by a third party. “Not only did Reider have constructive control over the instrumentality, he had actual control over the area – that is, the premises – in which Dorsey was trapped and injured.”

Accordingly, Dorsey had demonstrated that Reider’s conduct foreseeably created a broader zone of risk that poses a general threat of harm to others, and the facts of the case fall within one or more of the exceptions to the general rule that one is not liable for injuries caused by a third person’s misconduct. The Dorsey opinion provides a detailed analysis of when an individual will be held responsible for injuries caused by a third person.


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