Florida personal injury attorney Spencer Aronfeld is an author and civil rights activist who writes in the Huffington Post that the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law is both volatile and controversial
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is probably one of the most controversial and volatile pieces of legislation I have seen in my 25 years of legal experience as a practicing attorney in Florida. This law creates an “immunity” from criminal prosecution for those who use “justifiable force,” including “deadly force,” to defend themselves from someone who is using “imminent… unlawful force.” Found in Florida Statute Section 776, it became infamous by George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial.
This week, how the Stand Your Own Ground Law defense can be used in a civil lawsuit was interpreted by a Florida appellate court. The case involved a personal injury claim that emerged from a criminal case, where the State of Florida charged Jose Alvarez, a Miami roofer, with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for severely beating his co-worker, Derrick Roy Flemmings, with a baseball bat.
The attack occurred at their place of employment, a roofing company called Professional Roofing and Sales, located in Miami. In the criminal proceedings, the trial judge conducted an evidentiary hearing that included testimony from both Mr. Alvarez and his wife, as well as Mr. Flemmings. He dismissed the case, and found that Mr. Alvarez’s use of the baseball bat was justified under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.
While the criminal case was pending, Mr. Flemmings filed his own personal injury lawsuit directly against Mr. Alvarez and their employer, the roofing company for assault, battery, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as for negligently hiring and retaining Mr. Alvarez as its employee. In the personal injury case, Mr. Alvarez and Professional Roofing sought to dismiss the civil lawsuit on the basis of his acquittal in the criminal case and by asserting that the Stand Your Ground Law should serve as an absolute legal defense.
The civil trial judge denied the defendants’ motion, without conducting an evidentiary hearing, so Mr. Alvarez and the Professional Roofing appealed. The Third District Court of Appeal appellate court reversed the trial judge’s refusal to dismiss the case citing Colorado law since Florida’s has not yet not addressed the civil liability of the Stand Your Ground Law.
The decision to reverse the trial court was based in part on the fact that the criminal case’s involved the State of Florida as the complaining party against Mr. Alvarez, in contrast to the civil personal injury claim, where Mr. Flemmings is the plaintiff against both Mr. Alvarez and Professional Roofing. The court reasoned that this lack of “mutuality of parties” was a missing “critical element” that precluded a civil case being bound to a criminal trial judge’s decision to grant immunity.
However, in their opinion the appellate judges provide a road-map with clear directions as to how this case and future personal injury cases should apply the Stand Your Ground Law defense; by requiring an evidentiary hearing where a civil trial judges will be required to “weigh factual disputes” by examining the actual evidence to determine if a defendant is entitled to the immunity conferred by the Stand Your Ground Law.
As a Miami personal injury lawyer, I represent individual people, not giant corporations or insurance companies. I agree with the Court’s decision; I do not think that the Stand Your Ground Law should automatically provide an absolute legal shield defense against a civil lawsuit without a prior weighing of all the facts and evidence in each case.