TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – In a case that started with a man going to a bank to cash a $100 check, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for lawsuits by people who get injured because of "reckless" false reports about criminal activity.
The court, in a 5-2 decision, ruled in favor of Rodolfo Valladares, who suffered injuries when police stormed a Bank of America branch in Miami-Dade County after receiving a false report that Valladares was a bank robber. Valladares filed a lawsuit against Bank of America.
Justice R. Fred Lewis, writing for the court's majority, pointed to the need for a legal standard that "maintains a balance between protecting individuals from abusive accusations to the police, and encouraging citizens to report suspected criminal activity." In siding with Valladares, the majority said negligence lawsuits can be pursued in such instances when false reports demonstrate "reckless, culpable conduct to the level of punitive damages."
"Public policy supports a limited immunity for those who make innocent, simple mistakes, but that limited immunity cannot extend to conduct that recklessly disregards the rights of others," Lewis wrote in a 30-page opinion joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. "In the case of Valladares, the bank had ample information and ample time to know the true facts and to correct the false report, but failed to do so. Once there is information indicating that a crime is not being committed, this limited privilege should not extend to a person's failure to alert law enforcement that a reported crime is a mistake or simply wrong. This goes a step beyond negligence."
But Justice Charles Canady, in a dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, said the Supreme Court should not have taken up the case. That is because a ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in favor of Bank of America did not conflict with earlier legal decisions in similar cases, Canady wrote.
Valladares went to the Bank of America branch on July 3, 2008, several hours after an email had circulated among bank staff members to be on the lookout for a robber, the majority opinion said. The email included photos of a white man wearing a Miami Heat baseball cap, a T-shirt and sunglasses.
When he entered the bank to cash a $100 check, Valladares was wearing a Miami Heat cap and sunglasses, and a bank employee pressed a silent alarm as he approached her desk. Lewis wrote that Valladares presented the check, which included his name, and a driver's license. The employee took steps to stall, with a manager becoming involved and ultimately telling Valladares to leave the bank, the ruling said.
"Absolutely nothing had occurred, suspicious or otherwise, during the entire time to suggest or hint that Valladares was anything other than a regular bank customer conducting normal banking business," Lewis wrote.
Police stormed the bank, and Valladares was kicked in the head during the incident. Police then determined that it had been a false alarm, the ruling said. Valladares sustained injuries that have caused problems such as severe headaches and blurry vision and a diagnosis of post-traumatic disorder.
After the lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade County circuit court, a jury found in Valladares' favor and awarded him $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages. The 3rd District Court of Appeal, however, overturned the verdict, finding that "a person who contacts law enforcement to report criminal activity cannot be liable under a theory of simple negligence," Lewis wrote in Thursday's opinion.
While the Supreme Court majority rejected the 3rd District Court of Appeal's decision, it said it could not "simply reinstate the jury verdict" because of other issues in the case, including improper jury instructions. As a result, the Supreme Court sent the case back for a new trial.
The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.
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