Over this past Fourth of July weekend, a veteran Miami Beach cop named Derick Kuilan who was on the job (on duty) left a local hotel bar with a young woman, giving her a ride on the beach on his ATV.
They sped along, this cop and his lady friend, and they were going fast. It was dark. The ATV's lights were off.
The ATV was going so fast, in fact, that Luis Almonte and his girlfriend Kitzie Nicantor couldn't get out of the ATV's way in time, and both were run over by the police officer (again, who was ON DUTY) and seriously injured. The cop's friend, Adelee Sharie Martin, was reported thrown from the ATV but not hurt very badly.
If This Were Not a Cop....
If this were not a police officer, then this would be a straight-up personal injury law example: an ATV crash where the duty of the driver to be safe as he operated his all-terrain vehicle would be examined, to see if the driver breached that duty and caused the injuries sustained by the victim. If negligence was found, then the driver (and his insurance coverage) would have to cover the damages sustained by those who had been hurt.
When a Government Employee Is Involved in a Crash, It's a Different Situation
Things are different in a personal injury situation where a government employee is involved as the person operating the vehicle that crashes. Whether it is a car, an ATV, a motorcycle, or an SUV, if that government vehicle is involved then something called "sovereign immunity" may apply.
Or not. It's been reported in the Miami Beach ATV crash that officer Kuilan was seen fleeing the scene of the accident after it happened -- a key fact -- and that tests of his BAC levels (blood alcohol content) are being done by Internal Affairs, as he is on administrative leave from his job.
Witnesses say that the accident happened at around five o'clock on the morning of Sunday, July 3, 2011, and that after the crash, Kuilan asked onlookers to help him out and not say anything before he ran away.
What is Sovereign Immunity?
The idea of "sovereign immunity" has been a legal concept since ancient times, where it was more commonly known as "the king can do no wrong." Today, it is a legal concept, or "doctrine," that bars anyone from suing a governmental agency (like a police department) unless there are laws on the books that allow that lawsuit to be filed.
In other words, if the State of Florida does not have a law that lets an injured person sue the Miami Beach Police Department -- or any other state agency, even the Governor himself -- then that lawsuit cannot be filed.
Why not? There are several reasons for sovereign immunity, including protecting taxpayer money. If the accident happened in the course of a proper governmental action, then in the balance, it may be seen as better to protect the taxpayers as a whole than allow lawsuits for damages against a state entity.
For more details, check out this summary of sovereign immunity prepared by the Florida Senate.
Florida Statute 768.28 - Limited Ability to Sue Florida Government for Personal Injury
The Florida Legislature has passed a law that allows injured victims in Florida to sue for damages, waiving sovereign immunity in some situations. Of course, this law limits who can be sued, how much attorneys' fees can be awarded, etc. - but Florida does have laws on the books waiving sovereign immunity in some situations.
One of the Keys to Sovereign Immunity is Scope of Employment
One of the first questions to ask when a government agency, like a police department, is involved in a personal injury claim, is whether or not sovereign immunity bars the suit, and one of the key issues in that analysis is this: was the government employee acting in his scope of employment at the time of the accident?
Was a Miami Beach police officer in the scope of his employment, allegedly drinking at a hotel bar on a holiday weekend before taking a female passenger on a fast ATV ride in the dark, without headlights at five in the morning?
By Bryant Esquenazi on July 5, 2011 1:16 PM