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Florida Second DCA finds that Sheriff of Pinellas County was entitled to sovereign immunity protection from negligence lawsuit because decision not to include seatbelts in prisoner transport van was discretionary policy or planning level governmental function

On March 30, 2022, in Gualtieri v. Pownall, et al., No. 2D20-3315, the Florida Second DCA concluded that a negligence claim against the Sheriff of Pinellas County was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The plaintiff was injured while under detention by the Sheriff when the vehicle in which he was being transported suddenly braked, causing him to be thrown from his seat and strike his body against the metal interior of the rear compartment. He claimed that the Sheriff was negligent in having removed all restraining devices and safety belts from the rear compartment. The Florida Supreme Court has recognized that a special tort duty arises "when law enforcement officers become directly involved in circumstances which place people within a 'zone of risk' by creating or permitting dangers to exist, by taking persons into police custody, detaining them, or otherwise subjecting them to danger." Pollock v. Fla. Dep't of Highway Patrol, 882 So. 2d 928, 935 (Fla. 2004). Although the Second DCA agreed that the complaint contained sufficient allegations that the Sheriff in fact owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the Court nevertheless determined that sovereign immunity barred any lawsuit against the Sheriff because the decision not to include seatbelts in the rear compartment was a discretionary policy or planning level government function, which is immune from legal action, as opposed to an operational act, which is not subject to sovereign immunity. The Court cited, inter alia, Vinzant v. United States, 458 F. App'x 329, 333 (5th Cir. 2012), in which the Fifth Circuit held that the decision of the U.S. Marshals Service to secure prisoners with seatbelts was "based on a policy choice—striking a balance between the safety of the prisoners during transport and the safety of Marshals, which might be imperiled if the Marshals had to get close enough to the prisoners to buckle and unbuckle their seatbelts.”