In negligence cases arising from automobile accidents, whether a party received a traffic citation related to the accident is generally inadmissible. Courts do not want the jury to substitute the officer’s decisions to write or not write a citation for the jury’s own determination as to the negligence of the parties. If such evidence is presented to the jury, it may lead to a mistrial or a reversal on appeal.
The Second District recently held that this evidentiary rule also applies to incidents on the water in the case of Soto v. McCulley Marine Services, Inc. The defendants were hired by the county to help build artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. The project required the transport of materials by barge. Over the July Fourth holiday weekend, the captain moored the tugboat and the barge by the dock in the staging area created by the county. This staging area was located adjacent to a beach and a park, which were heavily used by the public, especially people on personal watercraft. The area had a reputation for strong tidal currents. The tugboat and the barge were each about 65 feet long, and they jutted out into the pass.
On the day of the incident, the victim had been on a jet ski near the barge and tugboat when the jet ski stalled. The victim was unable to restart it. The currents were allegedly strong that day, and the victim became separated from the jet ski. He was later found under the barge. He had drowned, despite the fact he was still wearing his life jacket.
The estate filed a negligence action against multiple defendants, including the county. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the county. Ultimately, just two defendants remained at the time of trial.
The estate alleged that the captain should have known that inexperienced jet skiers would be in the area where the vessels were moored during the holiday weekend. The estate further alleged that the captain should have known that the way they were moored would increase the strength and speed of the current and create a hidden danger. The estate argued that the captain should have moored them elsewhere or provided a warning. The estate also argued that the captain had violated a U.S. Coast Guard regulation and negligently obstructed the waterway in mooring the vessels at the dock. Finally, the estate argued that the captain negligently failed to “sufficiently crew” the barge and tugboat while they were moored.
A juror submitted several questions during trial. Among the questions was one inquiring as to whether the captain or owner had been cited for breaking a law. The defendants argued that the estate had opened the door for this question by trying to prove the violation of the regulation. The estate objected, but the trial court answered the question and told the jury the captain had not been cited. The trial court denied the estate’s motion for a mistrial.
The defendants argued that the lack of a citation supported their position that they did not cause the accident. The jury ultimately found that the victim’s death was not caused by negligence on the part of the defendants. The estate appealed.
The district court pointed out that automobile cases have clearly established that a citation or the lack of one is not admissible. The officer does not use the same standard as a jury in a negligence case. Florida courts have generally found prejudicial error when such evidence is admitted, even if the court provides a curative instruction.
The appeals court found the estate’s argument that the defendant acted in violation of a regulation did not open the door to admitting the officer’s determination as to whether to issue a ticket. The defendant had argued that the captain did not receive a citation and that there was not a law that required him to behave differently over the holiday. The appeals court, however, found that negligence law requires reasonable care under the circumstances. Here, the circumstances included the presence of inexperienced jet skiers. The court reversed the trial court order and remanded for a new trial.
An officer’s decision not to issue a citation does not necessarily mean that there was no violation of law, or more importantly, no breach of the duty of care. If you have been injured by someone else’s negligence, you need an experienced Florida boat accident attorney who understands Florida law. Call Anidjar & Levine at 800-747-3733 to schedule a consultation.
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