Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals has reversed a wrongful death judgment in favor of a man whose wife was killed in a drunk driving accident by an American Indian tribe member. The original verdict held the tribe vicariously liable for defending the tribe member, and the court found this set a poor precedent that could extend liability to such a degree that people could be punished for helping others defend themselves in civil litigation.

driving12Our Fort Myers wrongful death attorneys recognize there are many ways in which third parties can be vicariously liable for harm caused. In drunk driving crashes, there are social host laws that permit action to be taken against those who serve alcohol to minors or alcoholics who subsequently crash and cause injury. There are laws that permit vehicle owners to be held liable for negligent entrustment of a dangerous instrument (i.e., a car). There are also laws that can hold employers liable for failing to properly train and supervise their workers.

However, in the case of Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of South Florida, etc. v. Bermudez, the appellate court held this principle could not be applied to those who aid in the legal defense of other liable parties.

This case started after the plaintiff’s wife was killed in a drunk-driving crash wherein the intoxicated driver was a member of the Miccosukee tribe. The plaintiff and his son were also seriously injured in the crash.

In 2009, the plaintiff secured a judgment against both the driver and her father, the owner of the vehicle, with the jury awarding $3.1 million to the plaintiff. At that time, the tribe was not a named defendant in the case. In the years since that verdict, the plaintiff has yet to collect on the judgment, and the defendants in the case claim they have no assets that can be seized to satisfy the judgment.

Several years later, the plaintiff filed a motion to add the tribe to the judgment as a debtor, given the fact the tribe had funded the defense for the otherwise indigent parties. The tribe argued it was shielded by sovereign immunity.

The trial court sided with the plaintiff, and a second judgment was entered finding the tribe solely responsible for the full judgment which, with interest, totaled more than $4.1 million at that point. That ruling never referenced the earlier judgment against the driver and her father, and that judgment remains in effect.

The tribe appealed.

The plaintiff argued the tribe could be held vicariously liable for the judgment on several grounds. Primarily, the plaintiff relied on several rulings from the appellate court indicating a non-party to the action who funds and controls the defense of a party can be named as a party for purposes of covering costs. Namely, the plaintiff cited the rulings in Abu-Ghazeleh v. Chaul and Visoly v. Sec. Pac. Credit Corp. and Lage v. Blanco.

Upon review, however, the appellate court determined those cases dealt only with covering attorneys’ fees, primarily in lawsuits deemed frivolous. The court held none address the assertion that a third-party to a lawsuit could be held liable for a civil judgment against another person.

The court conceded the plaintiff’s point that the previous cases contained broad language that might support his theory, but determined he misinterpreted the legal reasoning of those rulings.

The court expressed concern that this case would create a situation wherein, for example, a parent could be held liable due to money or advice given to a grown child facing a civil lawsuit. The court indicated such a ruling could “upend existing legal relationships.”

The court did sympathize with the frustration of the family. It further wondered why the tribe wouldn’t have simply paid the judgment rather than continue to “squander legal fees and community goodwill” in amounts that exceeded the original judgment. However, the court held there was no legal basis for the plaintiff’s claim against the tribe.

If you have been a victim of a Fort Myers drunk driving accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of South Florida, etc. v. Bermudez,July 2, 2014, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Florida Drunk Driving Crash Results in $11M Dram Shop Verdict, June 5, 2014, Fort Myers Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer