How to Pursue a Slip and Fall Claim Against a City or County
What Are Your Rights When You Are Hurt On Government Property?
Here in South Florida, there are all sorts of occasions for people to slip and fall down, or trip over something in their path, and get hurt. These accidents where people are hurt in a fall can result in minor and short-term injuries like fractures or sprains, or more long-term, severe injuries to the brain (concussions) and spinal column (neck, back injuries). Falls are especially dangerous for the very young and the elderly.
Sadly, in pursuing a damage claim here in Florida for a fall injury (a “slip and fall” or “trip and fall” claim) there is a distinction made on where the accident happened. The very same injury and claim that happens on private property here in Broward County, or Palm Beach County, or over in Miami-Dade, or in cities like Hollywood, Plantation, or Fort Lauderdale, will be treated much differently under the law if it happened on privately-owned property than on premises that are owned and operated by public entities like cities and counties.
Cities and Counties in Florida: Different Liability in Slip and Fall Accidents
There are quite a bit of governmental owners of land and real estate here in South Florida where people are exposed to the risk of a slip and fall accident and resulting injuries every day. In addition to the counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach, for example, here are examples of municipalities that are all land owners within these counties (this is not a full and complete list):
Liability for Cities and Counties is Different Than Private Land Owners
When you have been hurt in a slip and fall accident (or trip and fall) your injury claim will be based upon premises liability law. If you, as the plaintiff or claimant, can prove that the property owner who was responsible for the condition of the premises was negligent (meaning they failed to maintain the property in a reasonable manner) then you can legally obtain financial recovery of your costs and expenses (your damages) resulting from the incident.
The burden of proof for accident victims is the same in any premises liability case: you must show with admissible evidence that the premises owner owed a legal duty to you and by breaching that duty, caused you harm. This is done through the testimony of witnesses as well as experts (like accident reconstruction experts and doctors). The burden of proving a negligence claim is also met with proof through all kinds of documents (police reports, incident reports, photos, diagrams, etc.).
However, no matter how much information you gather, if the defendant can prove it acted reasonably in maintaing the premises, then it is likely you will either receive no offer or a small settlement offer (aka nuissance value).
What Is an Immunity Defense to a Slip and Fall Case?
When the owner or operator of the premises and property where you were hurt when you fell down is a public entity like a city (municipality) or county, then you must consider the possibility of a “sovereign immunity” defense to your claim. Since the amount of damages paid by a city or county will be paid by tax dollars, government entities get special consideration under the law (meaning their liability is capped).
Also, there are times when an accident claim will be considered barred by an immunity defense in Florida. It all depends on the facts of the case, including where the injury occurred, who caused the injury and when the claim is filed.
Filing and Notice Deadlines
Pursuant to Florida Statute 768.28, sovereign immunity is waived by law for personal injury claims IF the injured person gives the government entity pre-suit notice within 3 years of when the accident happened (the cause of action accrual date) and IF their suit is filed within 4 years of that date. Wrongful death claims must be presented within 2 years of the accrual date.
Therefore, if the accident victim meets the time deadlines within this law, then the city or county cannot raise an immunity defense to their slip and fall negligence claim as a general rule. See, Public Health Trust of Dade County v. Menendez, 584 So.2d 567, 568 (Fla. 1991).
Sovereign Immunity Not 100% Waived in Florida Statute 768.28
Other immunities may still apply, however: such as a city or county being immune from liability for the intentional bad acts of its officers or agents. See, Fletcher v. City of Miami, 567 F. Supp. 2d 1389, 1394 (S.D. Fla. 2008), where the city was immune from liability for actions taken by a Miami police officer that were alleged to be committed willfully, wantonly, and with malice.
Accordingly, before any injured person proceeds in a claim against a Florida city or county for damages sustained in an accident on public property, they need to get their evidence prepared and their case ready to file within a set amount of time or face a bar to their claim based upon immunity.
In other words, when it’s a city or county involved, the injured person needs to have proof that sovereign immunity does not apply to their claim and that they have met their filing deadlines, because they can expect immunity to be one of the first responses to their demand for damages from the county or city whose negligence caused their harm.
Statute Limits Amount for Victims: Florida Legal Cap on Damages
Immunity laws are not the only statutes on the books protecting cities and counties from liability in slip and fall accident cases. There are also laws limiting the amount that they have to pay an accident victim.
The Florida Legislature has passed a law to protect the public coffers by limiting the total amount that can be paid to an injury victim in a slip and fall accident that happens on government property. Under Florida Statute 768.28, the total exposure for municipalities and counties in the State of Florida is $200,000 / individual and $300,000 / accident.
The law provides additional protections, as well. Under Florida Statute 768.28, if the insurance company adjuster settles for less than a certain amount, then they can finalize the settlement and the case is closed. However, if the injury victim does not believe that this amount is acceptable, and that it is even a lowball offer by the adjuster, then the victim can refuse to take that deal.
If this happens, under the statute the governing entity has to become involved in the settlement discussions and approve the final settlement amount. That amount, however, must still be within the caps set by the statute ($200K/individual; $200K/accident).
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