Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"Stand Your Ground" in the Workplace?

Florida's "stand your ground" law has gotten significant attention in the last year. Some interesting cases have been highly publicized. When would "stand your ground" have any involvement in workers' compensation? Once again, the answer comes not from the First DCA, but the Third, so you may have missed it last week. The short answer is that it is not workers' compensation, but it can be a concern in a workplace assault.

Florida workers' compensation is a "no fault" system for providing benefits and treatment to people who are injured on the job. However, Florida Statutes, section 440.09(3) precludes those benefits in some limited instances, such as when the "injury was occasioned primarily by . . . the willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself, herself or another." 

In Professional Roofing v. Flemmings (3D13-2162), the Third District Court issued a reversal on April 30, 2014. In this case the employer allegedly struck his employee with a baseball bat, for which he was charged with "aggravated battery with a deadly weapon." ' This was a criminal prosecution. 

In the criminal case, the employer defended arguing that "Stand Your Ground" (Florida Statute chapter 766) allowed him to use "justifiable force" to defend himself against what he perceived as the employee's "imminent use of unlawful force." The criminal court trial judge "agreed and dismissed the charges against" the employer. The criminal prosecution was not the end of the story however.

The employee also filed a civil suit against the business and the business' owner (the person with the bat) for damages, alleging claims for "assault, battery, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress." It is this civil case that made its way to the Third DCA. 'This case was against both the employer who struck the employee and the business itself, which the employee alleged was vicariously liable. 

The opinion does not mention the workers' compensation immunity under Section 440.11. As discussed, Section 440.09 suggests that either the employee's or the bat-wielding employer's intent to injure could render the case outside of the confines of workers' compensation. Therefore the absence of this immunity argument from the Court analysis is understandable. On this basis, this is not really a workers' compensation case, but still an interesting employee/employer relations case which should be of interest to workers' compensation professionals on both sides of that relationship. 

Both defendants moved to dismiss the civil suit, again arguing "Stand Your Ground." The motion also argued that the criminal court's dismissal of the criminal charges on the basis of that law should control the Stand Your Ground issue in the civil suit, which supported dismissal. The trial judge denied the motion to dismiss. 

The appeal to the Third DCA was interpreted as a petition for writ of prohibition. The appellate court noted that "a writ of prohibition is the proper vehicle for challenging a trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss a charge on the ground of immunity from prosecution pursuant to Stand Your Ground." This is an interesting element of the case analysis because the timeliness of the appellate challenge is founded on the fact that this is not an appeal but a petition for writ. The distinction can therefore be critical from a timeliness standpoint.

The appellate Court concluded that the criminal court decision/dismissal was not conclusive in the civil case. The employer essentially argued that it should not have to defend the justification for the assault twice, once in the criminal court and then again in the civil court. The legal concept is called "res judicata" or "issue preclusion." The basis for the legal concept is that parties in certain circumstances should not have to re-litigate identical issues repeatedly. 

The Court disagreed that res judicata should preclude re-litigating the issue of whether Stand Your Ground provided the employer with immunity in the civil case. The Court held that since the parties in the criminal case were the state and the employer,and not the employer and employee, that neither res judicata nor issue preclusion could be applied in the ligation between employer and employee. 

For illustration, consider a defendant that faces a claim of negligence from a plaintiff. If a finding of negligence is made in that suit, should plaintiff be allowed to then sue a second defendant and not have to prove negligence? The Court explains that this would not be appropriate because the second defendant was not a party to that first case in which the negligence finding was made. 

The Court explained that both the issue, in this case "Stand Your Ground" immunity, and the parties have to be identical for application of this legal doctrine. Because the parties were not the same in the criminal and civil cases, the Court concluded that neither res judicata or issue preclusion could be applied in the civil suit.

The Court also found no legislative intent in Stand Your Ground to have a criminal court determination in such situation control civil liability arising from the same incident or event. Since the stature does not contain a plain statement changing the mutuality requirements, the Court concluded it could not "infer such an intent."

The Court did reverse however. It concluded that Stand Your Ground is a "true immunity provision and not merely an affirmative defense" in the civil context. Therefore, the Court concluded, summary judgement is not appropriate for allegations of Stand Your Ground. Concluding that the trial court should have conducted an evidentiary hearing, the Court remanded for further proceedings. In that proceeding, the Court explained, the defendant would bear the burden of demonstrating entitlement to the statutory immunity of Stand Your Ground by a preponderence of the evidence. 

An interesting case. It illustrates that events in the workplace can have a variety of implications.

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