Liability for negligently disabling or failing to repair a traffic signal: absolute immunity in the Third District?

AuthorPerwin, Joel S.

The Third District Court's decisions have effectively abolished the cause of action for negligence in the creation of or the failure to repair a traffic control device.

In a series of decisions beginning with Metropolitan Dade County v. Colina, 456 So. 2d 1233 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984), review denied, 464 So. 2d 554 (Fla. 1985), the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District, has held that even when a city, county, utility company, or other responsible party was negligent in disabling or in failing to repair a traffic signal, the drivers involved in any subsequent accident were solely responsible for their injuries, even if they were not at all negligent in entering the intersection. These decisions significantly alter the preexisting standard of proximate causation, and with it the incentive of local governments and other responsible parties to take reasonable steps when disabling, or to promptly repair, malfunctioning traffic signals.

The standard of proximate causation in Florida is well established: "The key to proximate cause is foreseeability." Vining v. Avis Rent-A-Car Systems, Inc., 354 So. 2d 54, 56 (Fla. 1977). As the Supreme Court of Florida stated in Gibson v. Avis Rent-A-Car System, Inc., 386 So. 2d 520, 522 (Fla. 1980): "If an intervening cause is foreseeable the original negligent actor may still be held liable. The question of whether an intervening cause is foreseeable is for the trier of fact." Indeed, the Supreme Court has issued "directions to the appellate courts of this state" that issues of proximate causation almost always are for the jury. Welfare v. Seaboard Coast Line R. Co., 373 So. 2d 886, 888 (Fla. 1979).

In proper cases, even intervening conduct which is intentional--even criminal--may be foreseeable, if the defendant should have known that his negligence would create the opportunity for such conduct.[1] Indeed, in cases in which the defendant's negligence is defined by his failure to prevent precisely the type of intervention which took place (i.e., security measures to prevent crime; traffic signals to prevent accidents), it has been held that such intervention must be considered foreseeable as a matter of law.[2] At the other end of the spectrum, an intervening cause was unforeseeable only if it was "highly unusual, extraordinary, or bizarre." Stahl v. Metropolitan Dade County, 438 So. 2d 14, 21 (Fla. 3d DCA. 1983). See Palm Beach County Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Salas, 511 So. 2d 544, 547 (Fla. 1987) ("bizarre, unusual"); Department of Transp. v. Anglin, 502 So. 2d 896, 899 (Fla. 1987) ("bizarre"). Thus, as the Supreme Court indicated in McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500, 504 (Fla. 1992), "proximate causation generally must be left to the fact-finder to resolve.... [W]here reasonable persons could differ as to whether the facts establish proximate causation--i.e., whether the specific injury was genuinely foreseeable or merely an improbable freak--then the resolution of the issue must be left to the fact-finder." In cases too numerous to list, the appellate courts of Florida have held that the intervening negligence of the plaintiff or third parties did not break the chain of causation, relieving the defendant of liability for his preexisting negligence, because a reasonable jury could find that their negligence was foreseeable.[3]

These principles are no different when the original act of negligence is a local government's or utility company's disabling of a traffic signal or its failure to repair a disabled signal of which it had knowledge. The leading decision is Palm Beach County Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Salas, 511 So. 2d 544 (Fla. 1987). A county land survey crew working at the intersection had blocked off the left-turn lane with orange traffic cones, "thereby making the vehicle-activated left turn signal a perpetual red light"; it "did not, however, erect any signs prohibiting left turns from the remaining lanes." Id. at 545. An eastbound driver therefore attempted to make a left turn from the open lane, but hit the Salas car coming the other way. The county argued that the eastbound driver's alleged negligence, in asserted violation of a traffic ordinance, relieved the county of liability. Noting that the driver's "alleged violation of a traffic ordinance is merely evidence of her negligence," the Supreme Court held that "the county could have easily foreseen that blocking off the turn lane, and deactivating the turn signal and thus leaving motorists with no guidance on if or when they could turn left, personal injury to someone was not a remote possibility. [The other driver's] actions were not so unforeseeable that the county should be relieved, as a matter of law and policy, of all liability." Id. at 547. Even if the other driver was negligent, her "confusion at this busy and now more dangerous intersection was not some remote possibility, it was easily foreseeable. The fact that [the other driver] was negligent when she turned left does not render her actions so bizarre, unusual, or outside the realm of the reasonably foreseeable that the county's actions did not also proximately cause the Salases' injuries." Id. Salas thus is faithful to the general rules of proximate causation and the principle of foreseeability.

In its 1984 decision in Metropolitan Dade County v. Colina, 456 So. 2d 1233 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984), review denied, 464 So. 2d 554 (Fla. 1985), the Third District Court embarked on a journey away from these established principles. And although the Colina holding, when limited to its facts, may present some debatable questions even under existing law, its subsequent extension by the district court cannot possibly be reconciled with existing law.

In Colina, stormy weather had caused a power outage at the intersection in question; given ample evidence of notice to the county, it did not challenge the jury's finding of negligence both by the county and by the car which hit Ramon Colina's vehicle, killing his wife, nor the jury's finding that Mr. Colina was not at all negligent. In addition, the appellate court acknowledged that the plaintiff had proved actual causation: "Application of the traditional `but for' test results in a conclusion that the county's omission was a cause in fact of Mrs. Colina's death." Colina, 456 So. 2d at 1234. The problem for the district...

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