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James Manfre v. Kathleen Shinkle, Case No. 5D14-3368 (5th DCA)

In Manfre, the plaintiff was severely injured when her vehicle flipped several times after hitting a dead horse lying on the roadway. Approximately an hour and a half prior to the accident, two horse escaped their confines, and where spotted roaming along the side of a road. Police were called, and a Sheriff's deputy was dispatched. The deputy's car lights prompted the horses to run up a driveway and back into a pasture. The deputy never got out of his car, and cleared the dispatch by contacting the property owner. One of the horses later reemerged from the pasture and was struck and killed by a motorist. The plaintiff sued the Sheriff of Flagler County. and a jury later returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The Sheriff appealed, arguing no duty existed.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the Sheriff owed a common law or statutory duty of care under the public-duty doctrine, or alternatively, a special tort duty of care, or also in the alternative, a duty of care pursuant to the undertaker's doctrine.

The Fifth District began with background as to sovereign immunity, and noted that there can be no governmental liability unless a common law or statutory duty of care was owed to the injured party. The Fifth District first addressed the public-duty doctrine. It noted that in Wallace v. Dean, the Florida Supreme Court explained that where questions of duty arise in connection with potential governmental liability, the Florida Supreme Court has provided a rough general guide concerning the type of activities that either support or fail to support the recognition of a duty of care between a governmental actor and an alleged tort victim. This is generally referred to as the public-duty doctrine, and consists of four general categories. The relevant category for this case is the enforcement of laws and protection of the public safety. Notably, government liability may only be established when there is a common law or statutory duty of care owed by the government to the individual rather than to the general public. Courts addressing the relevant category here have found that because the duty to enforce laws and protect all citizens is owed to the public, law enforcement officers do not owe those duties to injured victims such as the plaintiff in this case. The plaintiff additionally argued that the Sheriff owed a duty under Fla. Stat. 588.16, of the Warren Act, which the court rejected.

The Fifth District then addressed the special tort duty exception to the public-duty doctrine. A special tort duty arises when law enforcement officers become directly involved in circumstances which place people within a zone of risk by creating or permitting dangers to exist, by taking persons into policy custody, detaining them, or otherwise subjecting them to danger. The defendant's conduct must create or control the risk before liability may be imposed. Here, the Fifth District found that the Sheriff's deputy did not take control over any situation or individual so as to place anyone, including the plaintiff, within a zone of risk. Therefore, no special tort duty was owed to the plaintiff.

Lastly, the Fifth District addressed the undertaker's doctrine, which provides that one who undertakes an act, even when under no obligation to do so, thereby becomes obligated to act with reasonable care. Here, the court found that the plaintiff could not have relied on the deputy's undertaking because she had no contact with the deputy prior to her accident, and therefore, could not have known of the deputy's actions. Thus, no duty was created pursuant to the undertaker's doctrine.

Accordingly, the Fifth District found that no duty was owed to the plaintiff, and therefore reversed the judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff.

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