Florida Record

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Appeals court says it can't touch immunity denial Florida Highway Patrol suit

By Michael McGrady | Mar 2, 2018

TALLAHASSEE -- An appellate court in Florida recently dismissed a case regarding whether the Florida Highway Patrol can exercise sovereign immunity in civil cases. 

Citing that the court doesn’t maintain the proper jurisdiction to pass judgment on cases currently in the discovery phase in a lower court, a panel at the First District Court of Appeal dismissed the case. 

The case, Florida Highway Patrol v. the Estate of Vontavia Kiara Robinson, was heard by Judge Thomas D. Winokur, Judge Joseph Lewis, Jr., and Judge Ross L. Bilbrey. All three concurred on the dismissal and requested that the Florida Supreme Court weigh in on the decision. 

“[Other] cases regarding the specificity with which a court must deny an immunity motion “as a matter of law” to permit interlocutory appellate review, we certify a question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court,” the Winokur's opinion stated. 

Simply put, the central question is whether the Florida Highway Patrol is subject to civil cases, citing claims of sovereign immunity. 

The appeal stems from an ongoing trial that involves a civil action filed against the FHP in the Alachua County Circuit Court. In this lower case, the estate of Vontavia Kiara Robinson alleges FHP is liable for the death of Vontavia Kiara Robinson. 

The case stems from an incident in which FHP closed off the Interstate Highway 75 corridor near Gainesville, Florida, in 2012, due to a nearby brush fire. After some time, the patrol opted to reopen the corridor, which resulted in a multiple car pileup that turned deadly. Robinson, according to local coverage of the incident, was the 11th victim found dead. She was 22. 

Robinson's estate, represented by Lashonta Renea Jackson, argues the accident was due to the negligence of on-duty highway patrolmen. Florida Highway Patrol claims immunity from a civil suit like this, arguing the Robinson estate can't sue FHP because of the accident. 

A lower court denied FHP a motion for summary judgment, which resulted in the agency appealing that particular motion knowing that the overall verdict has yet to be reached. 

 “It is unclear if the Florida Supreme Court has departed from narrowly interpreting 'as a matter of law' to permit appellate review of orders denying sovereign immunity when the record demonstrates that the defendant is entitled to such immunity and was erroneously required to continue to defend itself,” the opinion concluded. 

“If the court did not intend to signal a departure, appellate courts will continue to dismiss interlocutory appeals that will ultimately be reversed on appeal after trial, and parties will continue to defend themselves from suits they are 'immune' from. Without clarification this appeal must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.”

Bilbrey added, "As Judge Winokur notes, the trial court denied summary judgment finding disputed issues of facts remain, without determining whether the Florida Highway Patrol was entitled to immunity as a matter of law. As cases he cites correctly hold, the absence of a trial court ruling on immunity as a matter of law means we lack jurisdiction to consider the appeal."

Florida Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi and chief assistant attorney general Britt Thomas represent the Florida Highway Patrol. The Robinson estate has retained attorneys Jack J. Fine and Melissa Susan Sheldon of Fine, Farkash & Parlapiano PA in Gainesville.

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Florida First District Court of Appeal Florida Supreme Court