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Miccosukee Tribe v. Bermudez – Broad Theories of Vicarious Liability

As a general rule, civil courts both in Florida and across the country have held liability for third-party actions is not allowed, save for rare circumstances.
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In crash cases, our Fort Lauderdale car accident attorneys know there are a myriad of exceptions. These include cases where a car owner can be held liable for negligently entrusting their vehicle to someone they knew or should have known would not operate it safely. It could also extend to situations where a person served alcohol to a minor, who subsequently got behind the wheel and caused injury. Employers, too, might be held vicariously liable for crashes involving employees if it can be proven the company failed to properly vet, train or supervise the worker.

But should a third-party who aids in the legal defense of another be held liable?

Initially, a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade answered affirmatively to this question in Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of South Florida, etc. v. Bermudez, et al.. However, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed, finding such a precedent opened the door for a host of troubling scenarios, though the justices noted sympathy for the plaintiff and questioned why the tribe wouldn’t simply pay what was owed. Still, there was no legal basis, the court ruled, to force the defendant to pay.

The case began in 1998, when a wife and mother was killed in a drunk driving accident by an intoxicated motorist who was a member of the Miccosukee Tribe. Her husband and son were also both critically injured in the crash, though they survived.

The husband filed a lawsuit against the drunk driver, as well as the driver’s father, who he asserted was vicariously liable as the owner of the vehicle. A jury agreed with the husband, awarding a judgment of $3.1 million in 2009.

However, in the time that has elapsed, the plaintiff has never seen a penny of that judgment. The defendants claim they don’t have the money to cover the judgment, and they have no assets.

Several years later, the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking to add the tribe as a defendant to the original case, asserting that because the tribe had paid for and guided the defense on behalf of its two members, it should be held liable. The tribe disputed this, asserting it was protected by sovereign immunity.

The court heard the matter, and granted the plaintiff’s motion — ordering the tribe to pay the total amount of damages. With interest at that point, the judgment totaled $4.1 million.

The tribe filed an appeal.

The plaintiff laid forth a number of rulings in which the court had previously allowed third-party liability for certain costs. However, the appellate court found these cases didn’t lay a strong foundation for the plaintiff’s argument. For example, in one cited case, the outcome resulted in barring non-litigants from re-trying issues that were decided against their interests. In another case, the responsibility only pertained to coverage of legal fees.

Were the courts to decide anyone who aids in a person’s legal defense could be held liable for that person’s actions, the appellate panel ruled, there would be a myriad of unintended consequences. In one example offered, a parent could be held liable for the actions of a grown child if the parent provided help with legal bills.

Such an interpretation is too broad, the court ruled. While the court chose not to legally compel the tribe to pay, it chastised the tribe for not doing so anyway. The court described the tribe as having “squandered” both money and community goodwill by pouring money into costs of a legal defense that have thusfar exceeded the amount of the original judgment.

Whether the admonishment will be enough to prompt the tribe to pay the balance remains to be seen. What we know is that it can’t be forced to do so.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of South Florida, etc. v. Bermudez, et al., July 2, 2014, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal

More Blog Entries:
Universal Ins. Co. v. Office of the Ins. Comm’r – Rental Car Company Must Pay for Driver Negligence, June 23, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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