The Florida Supreme Court has issued a decision in a case involving a claim of civil immunity from a lawsuit for injuries sustained in what was ruled justifiable self-defense by a criminal court. The Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to civil immunity. Essentially the Court said immunity from criminal prosecution does not protect a person when it comes to a civil action.
A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR . . .
In a Tampa barfight back in 2008, Nirav Patel smashed a cocktail glass into the eye of Ketan Kumar, causing permanent blindness. Patel was arrested and charged with felony battery.
Patel argued at a pretrial hearing in the circuit court that Kumar started the fight and he was merely acting in self-defense, using Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as his defense. The circuit court agreed Patel was justified in his use of force to defend himself and granted him immunity from criminal prosecution. Undeterred, that decision did not stop Kumar from later filing a civil suit against Patel for his injury sustained in the barfight.
Doesn’t the law protect you from civil suits if your actions were found to be justified in the criminal matter?
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
Florida’s immunity provision can be found in Title XLVI Chapter 776 of the 2017 Florida Statutes.
Section 776.032(1) states:
“A person who uses or threatens to use force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in such conduct and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use or threatened use of such force by the person, personal representative, or heirs of the person against whom the force was used or threatened, . . .”
Patel sought dismissal of the civil matter based upon his having been granted immunity in the criminal matter. The circuit court denied the request, so Patel filed a petition with the Second District Court of Appeal challenging the lower court’s decision. In 2016, the appeals court ruled that state law “guarantees a single ‘Stand Your Ground’ immunity determination for both criminal and civil actions.”
End of the discussion, right?
DIFFERENT COURTS HAVE DIFFERING OPINIONS
However, that ruling conflicted with a 2014 ruling from the Third District Court of Appeal that found an immunity determination at a hearing in a criminal prosecution cannot be used in a civil matter.
The Third District based its reasoning on the doctrine of “mutuality of parties,” whereby a judicial determination generally cannot be binding upon a person not a party to the proceedings. The civil plaintiff is not a party to the criminal proceedings—the State assumes that role.
Two different appellate courts with two different interpretations of the law. So, the matter went before the Florida Supreme Court.
FLORIDA SUPREME COURT SETTLES THE MATTER
On September 28, 2017, the Supreme Court issued its decision.
The Supreme Court determined that a separate immunity process is required for both criminal and civil cases. The Court based its reasoning on their view that the Florida Legislature never clearly stated that one hearing would cover both determinations in the criminal and civil matter. And since a potential civil plaintiff is not a party to the criminal proceedings, they could not be bound by any immunity determination granted a criminal defendant. The Legislature did not purport to modify this “mutuality of parties doctrine” when it passed the “Stand Your Ground” law.
Additionally, the law provides that if defendants successfully argue they acted in self-defense in a civil matter, the plaintiff must pay the defendant’s legal fees. That would seem to indicate a separate hearing must be held in civil matters, apart from any criminal proceedings.
And the third reason the Supreme Court gave for reaching its decision is that the Legislature amended the Stand Your Ground law this year to create a separate burden of proof in criminal cases, different than the burden required in a civil matter, further distinguishing the two matters as separate determinations to be made.
CIVIL IMMUNITY STILL EXISTS BUT IT IS NO LONGER AUTOMATIC
The result of the Supreme Court’s decision is that even if you successfully argue immunity from prosecution in the criminal matter based upon the “Stand Your Ground” defense, you will not be given a pass in any civil matter based upon the same incident. The findings at the criminal immunity hearing cannot be used in any subsequent civil suit immunity determination.
The effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that the Stand Your Ground law does not provide you with immunity from a civil suit, even if your actions were found to be justified in a criminal proceeding resulting in immunity from criminal prosecution.
Civil immunity still exists, but you will have to fight the battle on two separate fronts. In essence you will have to have a trial within a trial to establish your right to civil immunity, another reason you need to have the legal protection offered by U.S. LawShield.
U.S. LawShield has your back and will provide legal defense for the criminal and civil trials as well as all immunity proceedings at no cost to you for attorneys fees.