Florida Supreme Court to Decide Liability in Synthetic Pot Crash Deaths

Can a company that sold synthetic marijuana to a man who later became intoxicated on it, drove and crashed, killing three people, be held liable for those deaths? The Florida Supreme Court will decide. West Palm Beach wrongful death lawyer

A jury in Tallahassee awarded family members of the three victims $37 million after the 2012 crash. The driver was a defendant in that case too. However, as our South Florida wrongful death attorneys can explain, the only hope the family would have of a payout anywhere close to that would be if the verdict against the synthetic pot manufacturer was affirmed. However, a three-judge panel with Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal overturned that verdict in June, finding the maker of the intoxicating substance couldn’t be held liable because the sole cause of the victims’ deaths was the criminal conduct of the driver.

Now, the case is being appealed to the highest court in the state.

Third-Party Liability for Florida Car Accidents

Most Florida car accident cases involve only negligent drivers as defendants. However, there are some circumstances in which third parties can be held liable. These include:

  • Product liability lawsuits. These are primarily claims against the manufacturers of the vehicles, vehicle parts or safety devices. For example, if the brakes on a vehicle were defective as designed, causing the crash or contributing to the severity of injuries, the manufacturer (and others in the supply chain) may be held liable for the resulting damages.
  • Vicarious liability. There are a few different parties that might be vicariously liable for the negligent actions of a driver. For instance, if a driver was an employee on-the-job at the time of the crash, the doctrine of respondeat superior may be applied to hold the employer liable for the crash. Similarly, if the driver of the vehicle was not the owner, the owner can still be held vicariously liable because vehicles are considered in Florida to be a dangerous instrumentality.
  • Dram shop liability. Florida has a pretty restrictive dram shop law, as outlined in F.S. 768.125. It allows a person who sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to someone who is under 21 OR anyone known to be habitually addicted to alcohol to be held liable for any injury or damages that result from the intoxication of that person. It’s the law that allows bars, hotels and other venues to be held liable for drunk driving crashes. But the law doesn’t take into account other substances – including synthetic marijuana (commonly called “spice”).

Can Maker of “Spice” Be Held Liable?

The question of whether the manufacturer of a marijuana synthetic can be held liable for a crash caused by a driver impaired by that substance is a relatively new one. Here, the driver had reportedly smoked the “spice” on St. Patrick’s Day and was driving 70 mph when he rear-ended plaintiffs’ vehicle at an intersection. A woman, her 9-year-old son and her son’s 10-year-old best friend were killed. The woman’s husband, also in the vehicle, survived.

During the Leon County trial in the triple-fatal crash, jurors found the substance manufacturer 65 percent liable. They held that the product maker failed in its duty to put adequate warnings on its “spice,” in some cases labeling it as “potpourri.” The driver (who was convicted on criminal charges of vehicular homicide) was deemed 35 percent liable.

At the time, the trial court denied defendant manufacturer’s request for a directed verdict on the issue of liability. The appellate court reversed on this point, finding the defendant should have received that directed verdict in its favor because the driver’s criminal conduct was the “sole proximate cause” of the deadly car accident. As our injury attorneys can explain, “proximate cause” is another way of saying, “legal cause.”

In siding with the synthetic pot manufacturer, the panel ruled that where another party voluntarily consumes a product to become intoxicated and makes the decision to drive illegally, the maker of that product isn’t the one responsible. The manufacturer could not have foreseen that someone who purchased their product would improperly consume it – when it’s clearly labeled “not for human consumption” – get high and then crash, the court ruled. Of course, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, it’s well-known these products are used by buyers (particularly in the younger cohort) to get high. Any product liability claim here may hinge on how the substance was marketed.

Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.

Additional Resources:

Synthetic marijuana, or ‘spice,’ deaths case goes to Florida Supreme Court, Aug. 29, 2020, News Service of Florida

More Blog Entries:

Should I Settle My South Florida Injury Claim or File a Lawsuit? March 30, 2020, West Palm Beach Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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