Court Reverses Decision in Miami Beach Diving Accident Case – Downs v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In Downs v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit explains that a person suing for negligence in Florida must show that the defendant owed the person a duty of care and that breach of this duty caused the person’s injury.

Mr. Downs was injured in a tragic accident when he dove in shallow ocean waters on Miami Beach in April 2003. According to the Court, Downs had been drinking the previous evening. He and a friend went to the beach in the early morning hours and Downs was injured when he struck a rock after diving head first into the ocean. Downs fractured a vertebra in the accident and was rendered quadriplegic.

Downs sued the Corps of Engineers under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that it negligently placed the rock on the beach as part of a beach re-nourishment project operated jointly by the Corps and Miami-Dade County in 1972.

The portion of the beach where the accident occurred was part of the Dade County Beach Erosion Control and Hurricane Protection Project in which fill material was dredged from offshore locations and added to portions of the beach. The Corps awarded a contract for the work to a contractor called Construction Aggregates. The contract terms required Construction Aggregates to remove all rocks larger than two inches in diameter from the top twelve inches of beach fill.

A district court ruled that the Corps was 15% liable for Downs’s injuries, while Miami-Dade was liable for another 15% and Downs himself liable for 50%. Florida. The City of Miami Beach shared the remaining portion of liability, according to the lower court. The Corps was ordered to pay Downs nearly $2 million in damages.

The 11th Circuit reversed the decision on appeal, however, finding that Downs failed to show that the Corps owed him a duty of care and that its breach of that duty caused his injury. As the court explained, the FTCA allows an individual to sue a federal agency for negligence where the agency would normally be liable for negligence under the applicable state law. Under Florida negligence law, Downs was required to prove that the Corps owed him a duty of care, that it breached the duty, and that this breach caused his injury either in whole or in part.

First, the court said Downs failed to introduce evidence establishing a duty of care among engineers. The duty of care owed by a professional is typically established by expert evidence to show what a professional of the same nature in the community would do under similar circumstances. “In the absence of expert testimony about the standard of care among engineers, we cannot conclude that the Corps violated a standard of care,” the court concluded.

Even if Downs had shown that the Corps breached the standard of care, the court further found that he did not show that such a breach caused his injury. Downs was required under Florida law to show that the breach was the “proximate cause” of the injury, according to the court. That means a reasonable showing was required that “but for the act the injury would not have occurred.”

Here, the court said that nothing in the record showed that Downs’s injury wouldn’t have happened if he had not struck the rock. Indeed, an expert in biomechanical engineering testified at trial that “if you take the rock away, the same neck injury would occur” because Downs was nearly vertical at the time and would have collided with the ocean floor.

The court reversed the lower court’s decision and entered judgment in favor of the Corps.

As this case makes clear, negligence cases often involve a number of complex issues, including those related to standards of care and causation. The South Florida negligence attorneys at Anidjar & Levine have vast experience representing clients throughout the region, including in Boca Raton, Hialeah and Coral Springs, in negligence and other personal injury actions. Call us at 800-747-3733 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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