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Senator Wants Drones Classified As A Dangerous Instrumentality

By NICK EVANS • JAN 19, 2016

  A drone liability bill passed its second committee Tuesday.

A Senate panel took up new drone legislation Tuesday. The measure aims at protecting Floridians from injury or property damage, but it’s moving forward without a controversial form of liability.

Florida’s skies are buzzing with an ever-increasing range of drones.  Or at least that’s how Sen. Miguel Diaz De La Portilla (R-Miami) sees it.

“Members the use of drones by businesses and hobbyists is accelerating daily.” De La Portilla said at a committee hearing last week.  “As they become more common, close calls involving drones and aircraft or people are accelerating as well.  Last week for example a drone crashed into Seattle’s giant Ferris wheel.”

His bill came up again Tuesday in the Senate Commerce and Tourism committee. 

There’s still plenty of sky to go around, but De La Portilla worries with more unmanned vehicles in the air, crashes and other accidents will follow.  The Miami senator is pushing a bill making operators and owners of drones liable for damage or injury caused by negligence.

“There’ve been serious headlines already and we’ve seen the number of registrations has just skyrocketed so we’ll have a swarm of drones,” he says. “That could potentially injure people and injure them seriously.”

But De La Portilla is backing off from an earlier version of his bill that would’ve held owners and operators jointly and severally liable. That raised concerns because in 2006, the state legislature abolished the use of joint and several liability because it can lead to actors with relatively little fault shouldering a disproportionate burden of a judgement.  Instead, De La Portilla unveiled a new version of the bill which declares drones are a dangerous instrumentality.

“The dangerous instrumentalities doctrine will make the owner of a drone responsible for the negligence of those allowed to use it,” De La Portilla explains. 

Jeff Garvin is a pilot and attorney who supports placing restrictions on unmanned vehicles.

“Currently the FAA’s program is simply to register them and attempt to educate the owners of the drones of the risks involved,” Garvin says.  “The problem with that and the reason that I’m tickled to see either joint liability or a dangerous instrumentality declared is that drones for many are toys so they’re going to be loaned out like other toys and not really supervised.”

But Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large says there isn’t enough case law about drones yet to classify them as a dangerous instrument.

“So here would be something unusual—the Legislature would create this doctrine,” Large says.  “Now I’m not actually saying the legislature can’t do it, I actually believe the legislature can do it, but up until this point in time this has been judicially created doctrine based upon a robust records based upon a finding of fact.”

And De La Portilla’s last minute audible left a number of his fellow lawmakers puzzled.

“The strike all amendment comes, and it’s left a lot of our business community confused,” Fernandina Beach Republican Senator Aaron Bean says.  “I certainly want a robust economy not to be weighed down by the threat of lawsuits for doing everything and I’m still scratching my head over calling them dangerous instruments—hairdryers are dangerous instruments if you use them improperly.”

But the committee approved De La Portilla’s provision, sending it forward to its final stop in the rules committee.