In the case of Anthony Newton v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation, et al., Case Number SC17-67 (Fla. September 27, 2018), the Florida Supreme Court held that front end loaders are considered a “dangerous instrumentality” under Florida law.
Underlying Case Facts
Anthony Newton was an independent contractor who was hired to help a employee of a construction contractor to clear debris from a residential lot. The construction contractor leased an 8,000 lb. front end loader from Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation.
During the work, the construction contractor asked Newton to climb inside of a disposal trailer to “pack down” debris to make more room for a large tree stump. While Newton was still inside the trailer, the construction contractor released the tree stump. As the stump was being released, Newton tried to warn the construction contractor that he was still in the way but the contractor did not hear him. As Newton was close to getting out of the trailer, the tree stump “rolled over” his hand resulting in the loss of his middle finger.
Thereafter, Newton filed a lawsuit against Caterpillar claiming that the front end loader was a “dangerous instrumentality.” Under several Florida cases, if a vehicle or piece of equipment is considered a “dangerous instrumentality,” then the owner of the vehicle or equipment has legal responsibility (vicarious liability) in the event that a person who the owner gives permission to use the equipment negligently causes an injury to a third person.
The trial judge ruled that the front end loader was not a dangerous instrumentality, and, therefore there was no liability on the part of Caterpillar.
How Is Something Deemed “Dangerous” In Florida?
The Second DCA affirmed the ruling of the trial court but the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, reversing the decision.
The first issue of importance is how an object is determined to be “dangerous” or not. As the Court points out, the “[dangerous instrumentality] doctrine is an old and well-settled rule that can be traced back to English common law…[and applies]…to objects that ‘common knowledge and common experience prove to be potent sources of danger.‘” A variety of factors are used by courts in Florida to determine whether an object is “dangerous.” On the list of factors is:
- whether the object is a motor vehicle
- whether the object is frequently operated near the public (but need not occur on public property)
- whether there are peculiar dangers relative to other objects that other courts have found to be dangerous
- whether the Legislature has regulated the object
- the practical capability of the object to cause death or destruction upon misuse
The Court determined that the decision of whether an object is a “dangerous instrumentality” is a pure question of law to be decided by the courts. Considering the ruling in this case, front end loaders are now considered a “dangerous instrumentality” for which the owner must answer for any negligence committed by its use just as in:
- Rippy v. Shepard, 80 So. 3d 305 (Fla. 2012)(farm tractor)
- Meister v. Fisher, 462 So. 2d 1071 (Fla. 1984)(golf cart)
- Sherrill v. Corbett Cranes Servs., 656 So. 2d 181 (Fla. 5th DCA 1995)(crane)
- Lewis v. Sims Crane Serv., Inc., 498 So. 2d 573 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986)(construction hoist)
- Eagle Stevedores, Inc. v. Thomas, 145 So. 2d 551 (Fla. 3d DCA 1962)(tow-motor)
Potential Immunity And Unintended Consequences For Workers’ Compensation
The second issue of importance discussed is that the Court held that Newton’s status as an independent contractor did not exclude him from protection under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The opinion states “[t]he doctrine has not treated construction workers as separate from the general public when injured in a public place” (the debris disposal trailer just so happened to be sitting in a public road at the time of the incident).
The Court went on further to say that “Newton’s employment does not disqualify his accident from coverage under the decision.”
The definition of “employee” is tricky in workers’ compensation under year 2018 definitions in section 440.02, Fla. Stat. As such, the statute includes the following definitions of “employee”:
“Employee” includes: An independent contractor working or performing services in the construction industry.
“Employee” does not include: An independent contractor who is not engaged in the construction industry.
Likewise, whether an “employee” is engaged in the “construction industry” is also a tricky definition:
“Construction industry” means for-profit activities involving any building, clearing, filling, excavation, or substantial improvement in the size or use of any structure or the appearance of any land. However, “construction” does not mean a homeowner’s act of construction or the result of a construction upon his or her own premises, provided such premises are not intended to be sold, resold, or leased by the owner within 1 year after the commencement of construction.
These definitions become very important in Florida third party liability cases involving workers’ compensation due to the fact that independent contractors in the “construction industry” are the “statutory employees” under section 440.10, Fla. Stat. of the construction contractor (and therefore get work comp benefits).
When we expand this scenario further, under section 440.11, Fla. Stat., in that work comp benefits are the exclusive remedy (IN PLACE OF ALL OTHER LIABILITY, INCLUDING VICARIOUS LIABILITY) as below:
(1) The liability of an employer prescribed in s. 440.10 shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability, including vicarious liability, of such employer to any third-party tortfeasor and to the employee, the legal representative thereof, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin, and anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages from such employer at law…
(It should be noted here that Caterpillar likely has an indemnity agreement or a right of contribution from the construction contractor in this case). Therefore, a future case before the Court may have to determine the impact of the exclusiveness of worker’s compensation immunity against liability for a “dangerous instrumentality” insofar as when that object is in a public place. It should also be noted that the Florida workers’ compensation statute gets amended relatively frequently and that future cases may be impacted significantly by statutory changes.
Seek Help With Your Florida Personal Injury Case
If you or a loved one has suffered an injury from a front end loader or other construction equipment, you should contact a personal injury attorney in Lakeland, Florida for a free consultation to determine the merits of your case.