On March 27, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the Third District Court of Appeal’s decision in Reider v. Dorsey, 98 So. 3d 1223 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012), and ruled that a person in an altercation with another person owes that other person a duty of care when he blocks his means of escape, allowing a third party to strike him from behind with a weapon.  The supreme court’s review was premised on conflict with its decision in McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500 (Fla. 1992), the seminal case in Florida on “duty” in negligence cases. 


To read the opinion, click here.


Background & Earlier Court Proceedings


Dorsey was drinking with Reider and Reider’s friend, Noordhoek, at a local bar and all were intoxicated over the legal limit.  While in the bar, Reider became belligerent, saying that he wanted to fight everyone.  Dorsey called Reider a vulgar name and walked out of the bar.  Reider and Noordhoek followed him, with Reider demanding to know why Dorsey called him the vulgar name.


Dorsey’s path took him between Reider’s parked truck and an adjacent car and as Dorsey walked between the vehicles, Reider managed to trap Dorsey between them.  Noordhoek followed Dorsey between the vehicles.  After several minutes of Reider harassing Dorsey over the epithet he used, Noordhoek reached into Reider’s truck and retrieved a tomahawk, a tool which Reider used as part of his work to help him clear land.  Dorsey attempted to push Reider aside in order to escape and after the two men grappled for about fifteen seconds, Noordhoek suddenly struck Dorsey in the head with the tomahawk, rendering him temporarily unconscious.  Noordhoek and Reider fled the scene.  Dorsey regained consciousness and drove himself to the hospital. 


Dorsey sued Reider for negligence and following a jury trial, Reider filed a motion for a judgment in accordance with a prior motion for directed verdict.  The trial court denied the motion and awarded damages to Dorsey.  Reider appealed the order. 


On appeal, Dorsey argued that Reider created a foreseeable zone of risk because (1) he failed to lock the doors of his truck before he went into the bar or at the time he accosted Dorsey in the parking lot; and (2) he thwarted Dorsey’s efforts to escape after Noordhoek retrieved the tomahawk from Reider’s vehicle.   The Third District Court of Appeal disagreed and held that Reider did not owe a duty of care to Dorsey, as a duty of care could exist only if keeping a tool in a truck “has so frequently previously resulted in the same type of injury or harm that in the field of human experience the same type of result may be expected again.”  The court further held that while Reider’s resistance to Dorsey’s effort to escape enabled the strike, there was no record evidence that Reider colluded with Noordhoek to harm Dorsey, or that Reider knew Noordhoek had the tomahawk in his hand before the strike. 


Supreme Court Proceedings


The supreme court noted that it recognized in McCain that a duty of care arises from four potential sources, including the general facts of the case.  Whether a common law duty flows from the general facts of the case depends upon an evaluation and application of the concept of foreseeability of harm.  When a person’s conduct is such that it creates a “foreseeable zone of risk” posing a general threat of harm to others, a legal duty will ordinarily be recognized to ensure the conduct is carried out reasonably.


The supreme court stated that it cautioned in McCain that it is important to note the difference between the type of foreseeability required to establish duty as opposed to that which is required to establish proximate causation – establishing the existence of duty is primarily a legal question and requires demonstrating that the activity at issue created a general zone of foreseeable danger of harm to others.  Establishing proximate cause requires a factual showing that the dangerous activity foreseeably caused the specific harm suffered. 


The supreme court found that Reider’s conduct in blocking Dorsey’s escape from the situation created a foreseeable zone of risk posing a general threat of harm to others, thus establishing a legal duty on the part of Reider.  The supreme court then analyzed whether this duty of care extended to the misconduct of Noordhoek, a third party, and held that it did, as the facts of this case met the exception to the general rule that a party has no legal duty to prevent the misconduct of third persons.  In particular, Reider was present and had the ability to control access to his truck where the tomahawk was located.  Furthermore, Reider not only provided access to the tomahawk, but he blocked Dorsey’s escape and was present when the tomahawk was used to injure Dorsey.  Finally, and significantly, Reider was in a position to retake control of the tomahawk and prevent an injury, as Dorsey testified that when Noordhoek took the tomahawk out of Reider’s truck, Dorsey asked Reider, “Bobby, what is this?”  Ten or fifteen seconds passed before Dorsey was then struck.  In this amount of time, Reider had the opportunity to prevent the injury.


The district court thus misapplied the supreme court’s precedent in McCain when it concluded that the evidence failed to demonstrate that Reider owed a legal duty of care to Dorsey under the facts of the case.  The McCain decision does not require that there be evidence that the defendant colluded with the third party to cause harm or knew exactly what form the harm might take – only that his conduct created a general zone of foreseeable danger of harm.  The supreme court quashed the district court’s decision and remanded the case for reinstatement of the trial court’s judgments.


Image courtesy of Flickr by Alan English (no changes).