Florida Supreme Court Rules Corporate Shield Cannot Block Liability in Semi Truck Crash – Kitroser v. Hurt
As a Missouri semi truck accident attorney, I routinely handle cases involving an out-of-state truck driver and trucking company being held liable for causing a crash within Missouri or Illinois. So I was interested to see a decision from the Florida Supreme Court that raised the unusual issue of whether a trucking company may use Florida’s corporate shield doctrine to escape liability in a fatal trucking accident. In Kitroser et al. v. Hurt et al., Rhina M. Castro Lara was killed in a crash caused by trucker Dale Dickey, an employee of Airgas Carbonic Inc. who was driving an Airgas truck. On appeal, the Florida appeals court ruled that there was no personal jurisdiction over the non-Florida defendants, then asked the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether the corporate shield doctrine applies.
The details of the accident were not given. After Castro Lara’s death, her personal representative, Michael Kitroser, and family members sued Airgas, Dickey and various Airgas employees, alleging that Airgas and Dickey’s negligence caused Castro Lara’s death, and that other Airgas employees negligently trained or supervised Dickey and knew or should have known he was an unsafe driver. The Airgas defendants each moved to dismiss, arguing that they do not live in Florida and their allegedly negligent actions, admittedly in Florida, were on behalf of their employer and thus protected by the corporate shield doctrine. The trial court found jurisdiction over the Airgas employees under the state’s long-arm statute.
However, the Airgas defendants appealed and the appeals court reversed and remanded, with orders to vacate its decision not to quash for lack of jurisdiction. It also certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court: “When an individual, non-resident defendant commits negligent acts in Florida on behalf of his corporate employer, does the corporate shield doctrine operate as a bar to personal jurisdiction?”
The Florida Supreme Court answered no and reversed again, restoring the trial court’s decision. The Airgas employees argue that they cannot be held responsible because they were not acting personally, but in pursuit of their employer’s corporate interests. However, the high court said, the corporate shield doctrine protects defendants who acts exclusively in a corporate capacity in another state from being hauled into Florida court. The court noted that the rationale behind this is that it would be unfair to apply Florida jurisdiction to someone with no relevant contacts with Florida aside from corporate acts. By contrast, however, the Airgas employees were undisputedly in Florida when the allegedly negligent acts took place. Thus, the Supreme Court said, the corporate shield doctrine cannot apply. “To hold otherwise would be tantamount to providing corporate employees with a form of diplomatic immunity,” it noted. It quashed the appeals court’s decision and sent the case back for more proceedings.
It’s a bit surprising to me as a St. Louis tanker truck accident lawyer that the appeals court accepted the corporate shield argument. According to the Florida Supreme Court’s analysis, the corporate shield doctrine pretty clearly does not apply to people who are acting within Florida, which again was not contested. No doubt, Airgas and other trucking companies who may be held liable for accidents they cause would prefer to have “a form of diplomatic immunity” for their employees, but as the high court noted, this would contradict the public policy goal of having a long-arm statute, which permits local jurisdiction over injuries created locally due to local decisions by residents of other states. As a southern Illinois tractor-trailer accident attorney, I routinely allege facts like these without a serious challenge in my own cases.
If your family suffered a loss or a devastating injury because of an accident caused by a trucker’s or trucking company’s negligence, call the trucking accident lawyers at Carey, Danis & Lowe. You can reach us through our website or call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400.
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