Proximate Cause in Florida Personal Injury Cases – Sunbelt Environmental v. Gulf Coast Truck and Equipment Company

Proximate cause is the legal term referring to an act that causes an injury as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred. It’s an important issue in any Florida personal injury case. In Sunbelt Environmental v. Gulf Coast Truck and Equipment Company, the First District Court of Appeal explains that a court can’t determine whether or not a particular defendant is liable for an injury sustained in an accident without first establishing the injury’s proximate cause.

Clifford Smith had his arm amputated as the result of an accident in which he was hit by a garbage truck while riding a bicycle. Smith and his wife sued Sunbelt Environmental, Inc. and the parties settled the matter before it went to trial.

Sunbelt then filed a third party complaint against the truck’s manufacturer, Gulf Coast Truck and Equipment Company, and Wastequip Manufacturing Company, which installed a tarping device on the truck to prevent debris from leaving the bed. Sunbelt raised claims for negligence and strict liability against both parties as well a breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim against Wastequip. Specifically, Sunbelt alleged that an “arm” connected to the truck to keep the tarp in place – which allegedly caught Smith’s clothing, causing the accident – made the truck wider than allowed under state and federal law.

Following discovery, Sunbelt and Wastequip filed a joint motion for summary judgment, arguing that they were not liable because the truck’s driver – a Sunbelt employee – acted negligently by “by failing to pass at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet,” in violation of Florida law and in failing to decrease his speed as necessary in order to avoid colliding with Smith. Defendants also argued that the truck width was within the legal requirement.

The trial court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that while the truck exceeded the width limits, Sunbelt – as the truck’s owner – was required to ensure that it comported with the law. The court further held that because it replaced the tarping unit in 2006 using its own employees, “Sunbelt assumed the risk associated with its own labor.” Thus, according to the court, neither Gulf Coast nor Wastequip could be held liable for any illegality as to the width of the truck.

The First District reversed the decision on appeal, finding that the trial court failed to determine the proximate cause of Smith’s injury. According to the court, consideration of Defendants’ liability requires the trial judge to first determine whether the length of the truck arm proximately caused Smith’s injury or whether other factors, including the truck operator’s driving, road conditions and Smith’s clothing, combined to form the proximate cause. Without establishing proximate cause, the court held that the ultimately issue of liability cannot be determined. That is, the trial court’s finding that Sunbelt is solely responsible for ensuring that the truck is in proper condition “does not establish the liability of Sunbelt without concurrent determinations that the truck was illegally wide and that the illegal width was the proximate cause of the cyclist’s injuries,” the court ruled.

As a result, the court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine provide free consultations and case evaluations for people injured in accidents throughout the area, including in Pompano Beach, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. Anidjar & Levine works work on a contingency fee basis, which means they do not charge you any legal fees unless you win. If you have suffered injury because of another person’s negligence, call for a free consultation today.

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