Can a Lawsuit be Filed Against a Police Department or Sheriff for Negligence?
Police officers, sheriffs and other government officials in Florida have what is called sovereign immunity from lawsuits based upon negligent conduct that causes injury or death to a member of the public. This sovereign immunity basically means that they cannot be sued by a person for injuries or a death caused by their conduct. However, there are exceptions to the sovereign immunity rule in Florida.
One such exception was outlined in a recent Florida Supreme Court case based on an incident that occurred in Marion County, which is near Ocala, Florida and is about two hours southeast of Jacksonville, Florida. In that case, a relative of the victim called a neighbor to check on the victim who was home alone. When the victim did not answer calls or knocks on her door, the neighbor called 911. Two Marion County police officers arrived and made entry into the victim's home. The victim was found unconscious on the floor. The police yelled the victim's name and shook her, but the victim gave no response of any kind. Two witnesses implored the police officers to call for an ambulance, but the police officers assured the witnesses that the victim was merely sleeping. One of the witnesses even indicated to the police that the victim may be in a diabetic coma, but the police officers again reiterated that she was just sleeping. The police suggested that they leave a window open and left. The witnesses relied upon the police officers' opinion and left as well. One of the witnesses came back later and saw that the victim had not moved. An ambulance was then called, and the victim died shortly thereafter.
This case raises several issues, but two primary ones are whether the police officers owed a duty of care to the victim and if so, whether they were protected from a lawsuit in Florida by sovereign immunity. Police officers can only be sued in certain situations. In any case, a plaintiff can only sue someone if that person owed a duty of care to the plaintiff or decedent and breached, or violated, that duty. In this case, the Court found that the police officers did owe a duty of care to the victim based upon the undertaker's doctrine. This doctrine as it applies to this case says that if the police respond to a 911 call, undertake the duty to try and help the victim (i.e. assume the duty of care), fail to appreciate the obvious severity of the victim's condition and fail to call an ambulance and the victim is injured or dies as a result, then a duty of care is present. In other words, if the police officers decided to respond to this call later after handling other business first or decided not to go into the house after no one answered and the victim died as a result, the analysis may be different. But, since they saw the victim, undertook the effort to try and determine her condition and make an assessment as to what she needed, they went a long way towards assuming a duty of care for the victim.
Two other elements were also present here. By undertaking to care for the victim and deciding that she was just sleeping, the police officers increased the risk of harm to the victim and gave the witnesses a false sense of security thereby delaying their efforts to help. In other words, the police officers' gross misunderstanding and miscalculation of this situation left the victim worse off than she was before and gave the witnesses who wanted to help reason to believe that they did not need to do anything further for the victim.
Of course, just because a duty of care is present and breached does not mean a lawsuit can go forward. The second part of the analysis looks at whether the police officers or sheriff are immune from a lawsuit. The issues regarding immunity are too lengthy to cover here. However, in general, government officials are immune from a lawsuit based on discretionary, or planning or policy making, type decisions. For operational decisions, immunity does not apply and government officials can be sued for their conduct. The Court determined that the decisions made by the police officers in this case were operational.
Sovereign immunity protects government and law enforcement officials from lawsuits for injuries and deaths in many situations. However, as the case described above illustrates, there are exceptions to the sovereign immunity rule that allow lawsuits to go forward when injuries or deaths result from negligence on the part of police or other government officials.