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Tampa Bay Business Journal

Florida House could shield equipment firms from liability


By News Service Florida staff
March 6, 2019
After a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year in a case involving a worker whose finger was severed, state House members Wednesday began moving forward with a bill that could help shield heavy-equipment owners from liability in such situations.

The bill (HB 355), approved by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, focuses on companies that lease heavy equipment to other people or businesses and deals with a legal issue known as the “dangerous instrumentality doctrine.”

A divided Supreme Court in September ruled that Caterpillar Financial Services Corp. could be held liable in a case stemming from injuries suffered by worker Anthony Newton, who had been hired by C&J Bobcat and Hauling LLC to help clear a lot.

Newton and another man used a multi-terrain loader that had been leased from Caterpillar and was used to dump debris into a trailer for disposal, the Supreme Court decision said.

Newton was inside the trailer when the other man released a stump from the bucket’s loader, with the stump rolling onto Newton’s hand and severed a finger.

Newton filed a lawsuit in Pinellas County alleging that Caterpillar was liable because the loader was a dangerous instrumentality. A circuit judge and the 2nd District Court of Appeal turned down the argument, but the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, overturned the appeals court.

The House bill, filed by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, would make a series of changes, but a key would be to help protect equipment-leasing companies such as Caterpillar from liability.

Under the bill, such companies would not be liable if they lease equipment to other people or businesses who carry minimum levels of liability insurance.

The proposal is supported by groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute. Christine Graves, an attorney representing the Florida Justice Reform Institute, said equipment-leasing companies currently can be held liable while not being involved in negligence by equipment operators.