Your Charleston personal injury attorneys at Howell and Christmas, LLC found an interesting wrongful death case that alleges police owed a duty to protect the decedent's safety after his arrest and release from police custody. The polarizing lawsuit has made its way to the District Court of Appeals in Florida and raises questions about strict adherence of codified (or statutory) law and the interpretation of applicable common law principles. However, the judgments do not concern case resolution, rather the holdings discussed below determine whether the Plaintiff's (decedent's father) wrongful death claim meets the minimum threshold to establish a duty of care, a requirement needed for the suit to proceed.
In September 2007 a 24-year-old man was arrested by Boca Raton police for a number of traffic violations. After a night of heavy drinking the 24-year-old man, against the wishes of a family member, got into his truck and began driving erratically. Said family member, a cousin, followed him and called 911. Police took the man into custody, told his cousin to leave, arranged for his truck to be towed, and transported him to the police station. Police issued five traffic citations, none of which were for driving under the influence (DUI), and after calling the man a cab, released him from custody, still noticeably intoxicated. At 5:20 a.m. that morning (about an hour after his release) the man was laying next to railroad tracks a short distance from the police station. An approaching train struck and killed the man. At the time of his death, his blood alcohol level was .199; well over two-times the legal limit.
The man's father (Plaintiff) filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Boca Raton Police. As mentioned above, the suit claims police had a duty to protect Plaintiff's son's safety and not merely release him into the night. The suit was thrown out by the trial judge, a three-judge panel of the court ruled that Plaintiff could proceed with the suit; upon which the City of Boca Raton asked the full appeals court to review the panel's decision.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach, in a narrow six to five majority decision, ruled that police had no further responsibility for Plaintiff's son's safety after he stepped out of the police station door.