On April 23, 2013, the Florida Supreme Court accepted review of a case involving the issue of whether 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. See Reider v. Dorsey, 98 So. 3d 1223 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012) (Fla. Sup. Ct. Case No. SC12-2197).
Trial Court Proceedings
The facts of the case are unique. Dorsey was drinking with Reider and Reider’s friend, Noordhoek, at a local bar and all were intoxicated. While in the bar, Reider became belligerent, saying that he wanted to fight everyone. Dorsey then insulted Reider and walked out of the bar. Reider and Noordhoek followed him, with Reider demanding to know why Dorsey insulted him.
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 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 moved 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 to the Third District Court of Appeal.
The Third District reversed the entry of judgment for Reider, holding that “Reider did not owe a relevant duty of care to Dorsey when Dorsey was attacked and therefore cannot be held liable for his injuries.”
This case turned on the three exceptions to the general rule that there is “no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him or her from causing physical harm to another.” The exceptions arise if, “at the time of the injury, the defendant is in actual or constructive control of: (1) the instrumentality; (2) the premises on which the tort was committed; or (3) the tortfeasor.” It was undisputed that Dorsey was injured by Noordhoek, not Reider. Dorsey, however, argued that Reider could be held liable under the first and third exceptions.
The appellate court rejected the application of both exceptions. As for the instrumentality exception, it stated that 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.” While many people keep tools of their trade in their vehicles, the field of human experience does not lead us to expect that an acquaintance of ours might take such an item from a vehicle in a parking lot and use it to strike another acquaintance in the back of the head.
The appellate court analogized this case to cases where a person uses another person’s gun to shoot someone and the owner of the gun is found not to owe a duty of care to the person who was shot. A common theme runs through the cases: merely providing access to an instrument—even a potentially dangerous one and even if that access is the result of negligence—does not equate to a duty to control another person's use of that instrument. Applying that rule to this case, the court stated that the most that could be said is that Noordhoek seized the opportunity to gain access to the tomahawk. Reider did not affirmatively give it to him, authorize him to take it, or in fact even know he had taken it. Thus, Reider had neither the duty nor the ability to control Nordhoek's conduct.
With regard to the third exception, that Reider created a foreseeable zone of risk by blocking Dorsey’s escape, the appellate court noted 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.The court concluded from the record that Reider's main purpose for following Dorsey out of the bar was to confront Dorsey about insulting him. Reider therefore did not create a foreseeable zone of risk and Reider did not owe a relevant duty of care to Dorsey.
Status Before Florida Supreme Court
The parties have completed their briefing and oral argument is scheduled for October 8, 2013 at 9:00 am. The author will update this article after the Court decides the case.