After the initial shock wears off from the horribly unforgettable I-75 accidents that took 11 lives and sent 21 to local hospitals, it is natural to wonder about liability. Who is responsible for these accidents? Was something done incorrectly? Was something not done? Unfortunately, it will probably take years of going through the civil courts before these questions are answered for the people involved in the wreck, their families and friends, and the general public. In the meantime, however, we can attempt to determine which parties may have liability for the accident and to what degree.
Florida Highway Patrol
The first party to consider for responsibility is the Florida Highway Patrol, which closed I-75 on Sunday morning due to poor visibility only to reopen the road three hours later. Although the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is currently investigating FHP’s handling of the incident, FHP continues to defend its decision to reopen the interstate shortly before the accidents began to occur in a thick cloud of fog and smoke.
Even if it is determined that FHP is to some degree responsible for causing the accidents, however, collecting proper compensation from FHP for their civil liability will be extremely difficult. FHP is a state agent, which means that it is funded by and operates under the authority of the state of Florida. State agents operate under a different set of laws regarding liability than individuals or businesses in the private sector. A clause in the Florida Constitution explains that state agents can be held financially liable for an amount that cannot exceed $300,000/incident. In other words, even if FHP was found to be 100% liable in civil court for the accidents, the victims and their families in a best case scenario would have to divide the $300,000 award. This is called placing a legal cap on the state’s financial liability. The only way to avoid this liability limitation is to pass a law that specifically allows for a higher liability amount. Lawmakers, however, passed fewer and fewer of these bills into law over recent years, including only two last year.
Unlike FHP, the truck companies whose semi-trailers were involved in the accidents are not state agents and thus are not protected by the $300,000 cap. Instead, these companies are private businesses and may be held liable for the full amount of the total damages, regardless of the amount. The truck companies’ potential liability for the accidents will stem from how their drivers handled the situation on I-75. The drivers are employees of the truck companies, which means that the companies can be held liable for their drivers’ actions.
As to whether the truck drivers can be held responsible for the accidents, we first look to the law. Federal regulations require truck drivers to take “extreme caution” in hazardous conditions such as fog and smoke, requiring that they reduce their speed or stop. The regulations further state that if reducing speed or stopping the truck would increase the hazard to passengers, the truck may be driven to the nearest place where safety is assured.
Now that we know what is required of truck drivers in such a hazardous situation, we look to what actions the truck drivers took during the I-75 accidents. FHP reported that on early Sunday, as smoke blocked visibility southbound on I-75, one semitrailer stopped in the center lane and another semitrailer stopped in the outside lane. Both trucks were rear-ended by other vehicles and those vehicles also were rear-ended. Two drivers and two passengers in the vehicles died, while neither truck driver was injured. Whether the truck companies are found liable will depend on whether the truck drivers negligently operated their semi-trailers, and whether the truck drivers are found to have been negligent will depend in part on whether they followed the federal regulations mentioned above.
A third party that may be liable for the accidents is the person who started the prarie fire. Fire officials have determined that the fire was started by a person, either accidentally or intentionally. The fire produced the thick smoke that covered stretches of the highway and contributed in reducing visibility to zero. Therefore, there is a connection between the person’s action of starting the fire and the accident, meaning that he could be held liable.
Three potential problems exist, however. First, the party responsible for starting the fire has not been identified and there is a good chance that s/he never will be. Second, even if that person is eventually discovered, the statute of limitations may expire and it will be too late to file a civil claim against that person. Third, it is important to keep in mind that most individuals have limited money to pursue in a civil lawsuit. In other words, it might be like trying to get blood out of a rock, even if liability is clearly found to exist.
Of course, liability is not in any way limited to these three parties. There very well may be other potentially liable parties that are not yet known to the public. Furthermore, liability can be shared by as many parties that are responsible. When multiple parties are held liable, there degree of fault will be apportioned into a percentage until the total degree of liability equals 100%.
Perhaps a fourth potential party we should mention for being potentially liable is the victims themselves. Under the law of comparative negligence, the degree of fault by those that are found liable will be reduced by the degree of fault by the victims in the accident who were also driving when the accident occurred. If it is determined in a court of law that the victims’ driving contributed to the accident occurring and continuing, then they will be found comparatively negligent, and their percent of liability will be deducted from the 100% liability apportionment.
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