Cauley v. City of Jacksonville

Decision Date16 July 1981
Docket NumberNo. 57756,57756
Citation403 So.2d 379
PartiesCheryl M. CAULEY and Cecil Cauley, her husband, Appellants, v. CITY OF JACKSONVILLE, a body politic and corporate, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Wayne E. Hogan of Brown, Terrell & Hogan, Jacksonville, for appellants.

Dawson A. McQuaig, Gen. Counsel and William Lee Allen and Donald R. Hazouri, Asst. Counsels, Jacksonville, for appellee.

Joel D. Eaton of Podhurst, Orseck & Parks, Miami, for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, amicus curiae.

Claude L. Mullis, Tallahassee, for Florida League of Cities, Inc., amicus curiae.

OVERTON, Justice.

This is an appeal from a circuit court decision holding constitutional section 768.28(5), Florida Statutes (1977), 1 which by its terms limits the amount of money damages recoverable in tort against a municipality to $50,000 per person and $100,000 per incident. 2 We have jurisdiction, 3 and affirm.

The facts are undisputed. Appellant Cheryl Cauley was injured in an automobile accident allegedly caused when the right front wheel of her automobile dropped from the road surface into a long-existing and dangerous depression in the road shoulder, causing the vehicle to go out of control and collide with another automobile. Mrs. Cauley alleged that the city had knowlege of this dangerous condition and had consequently breached its duty to exercise reasonable care in the repair and maintenance of the roadway and duty to warn of the dangerous condition. A jury assessed Mrs. Cauley's total damages at $400,000 and awarded a $200,000 consortium claim to her husband. The jury found Mrs. Cauley to be seventy-five percent responsible for the accident, and the trial court accordingly reduced the amount and entered a total judgment of $150,000 for the plaintiffs. The city filed a motion to limit the judgment to $100,000 in accordance with section 768.28(5). The trial court granted the motion and expressly found that this statutory section was constitutional.

The question we must decide concerns the validity of that portion of section 768.28(5) which limits compensatory damages against municipalities for negligent performance of operational-level or proprietary functions. The issue is narrow because this Court has previously held constitutional that portion of section 768.28(5) which waives sovereign immunity and establishes a statutory cap for compensatory recovery against the state and county governments for operational-level negligence. Commercial Carrier Corp. v. Indian River County, 371 So.2d 1010 (Fla.1979). Appellants concede the statute's validity as applied to the state and county governments and as applied to those municipal functions which were previously immune.

In answering the instant question, a historical perspective is useful. 4 Sovereign immunity's roots extend to medieval England. The doctrine flows from the concept that one could not sue the king in his own courts; hence the phrase "the king can do no wrong." The United States government fully accepted the sovereign immunity doctrine in Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 5 L.Ed. 257 (1821), in which Chief Justice Marshall declared that no suit could be commenced or prosecuted against the United States without its consent. Id. at 411-12. Later, Justice Holmes explained: "A sovereign is exempt from suit, not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends." Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353, 27 S.Ct. 526, 527, 51 L.Ed. 834 (1907). The majority of American states fully embraced the sovereign immunity theory as well as the federal government. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 895B, comment a at 400 (1979). Thus the general rule was that state governments, their agencies, and their subdivisions could not be sued in state courts without state consent.

At this point, it should be noted that, although suit against the king did not lie, one injured by the king's ministers could always petition the king directly for relief. In modern time, our legislative bodies are vested with the authority to grant relief for governmental wrongs through waiver of immunity. 5 Congress eliminated immunity in part and granted leave for suit against the United States federal government in 1946. Federal Torts Claims Act, Pub. L. No. 79-601, Ch. 753, 60 Stat. 842 (1946) (current version codified at 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291, 1346, 1402, 1504, 2110, 2401, 2402, 2411, 2412 (1976)). The people of Florida vested the power to waive immunity in the Florida legislature at an early date. See art. IV, § 19, Fla.Const. (1868) (now art. X, § 13, Fla.Const.). The Florida legislature did not exercise this authority until 1973 when it enacted section 768.28. Ch. 73-313, § 1, Laws of Fla.

Common law sovereign immunity for the state, its agencies, and counties remained in full force until section 768.28's enactment. Unlike the state and county governments, however, the case law establishing and construing municipal sovereign immunity has been confusing as a result of inconsistent application. Prior to 1776, the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity applied without distinction between governmental entities. The first generally reported attempt at suit specifically against a local government was in the English case of Russell v. The Men of Devon, 100 Eng.Rep. 359 (1788). In that case, a claim was made against the inhabitants of unincorporated Devon County for injuries resulting from the county's failure to maintain a bridge. The court refused to hold the county liable and specifically stated that no precedent existed for such an action and that it could not be maintained because suit did not lie against the public. 6 Devon became the standard for local government sovereign immunity.

In 1850, the Florida Supreme Court distinguished Devon and its applicability to municipalities in City of Tallahassee v. Fortune, 3 Fla. 19 (1850). The Fortune court determined that the City of Tallahassee could be held liable for a mare which died after falling into a negligently maintained city ditch. The Court based its decision on the City of Tallahassee's corporate fund which was available to pay damages; no fund was available in Devon.

Fortune is the first of a line of Florida decisions which began to except certain municipal activities from the sovereign immunity rule. These cases, while recognizing the doctrine, began to prune away its applicability. Prior to Fortune, other states had reacted to municipal immunity's dissonant effects and, reasoning that municipal corporations were the same as private corporations in some circumstances, bifurcated municipal activities into governmental functions and proprietary or corporate functions. See, e. g., Bailey v. Mayor of New York, 3 Hill 531 (N.Y.1842). As to the governmental functions, the courts determined that cities remained immune from suit, but, as to proprietary acts, immunity was abolished. Florida accepted this view. Ballard v. City of Tampa, 124 Fla. 457, 168 So. 654 (1936); Brown v. City of Eustis, 92 Fla. 931, 110 So. 873 (1926); City of Orlando v. Pragg, 31 Fla. 111, 12 So. 368 (1893). In turn, a problem soon arose in determining which municipal functions were governmental, and thus immune from suit, and those which were proprietary, and thus not immune. As Florida courts continued to erode away municipal immunity by placing more and more municipal functions into the proprietary category, inconsistencies developed which defied both logic and common sense. 7 Several examples make this clear.

The general rule was that cities could not be held liable for the unlawful or negligent actions of municipal officers. Brown v. Town of Eustis. 8 Thus, a municipality was immune from suit when its police department unlawfully battered an arrestee, City of Miami v. Bethel, 65 So.2d 34 (Fla.1953), and falsely arrested and imprisoned an arrestee, Kennedy v. City of Daytona Beach, 132 Fla. 675, 182 So. 228 (1938). However, at the same time municipalities were supposedly immune, city police were held accountable for not providing medical aid at the time of an arrest, Britt v. Ocala, 65 So.2d 753 (Fla.1953), a death-causing fire at a police station, Williams v. Green Cove Springs, 65 So.2d 56 (Fla.1953), injuries resulting from a police cruiser's defective brakes, City of Avon Park v. Giddens, 158 Fla. 130, 27 So.2d 825 (Fla.1946), and a prisoner's venereal disease contracted at the city jail, Lewis v. City of Miami, 127 Fla. 426, 173 So. 150 (1937).

Similarly, under the same general rule, municipal fire departments should have been immune. But this Court held that municipalities were liable for damages resulting from a negligently driven fire truck en route to a fire, Maxwell v. City of Miami, 87 Fla. 107, 100 So. 147 (1924); City of Tallahassee v. Kaufman, 87 Fla. 119, 100 So. 150 (1924).

Still another inconsistency was the Court's general rule that cities were liable for damages resulting from the negligent operation and maintenance of city streets and sidewalks. Woods v. City of Palatka, 63 So.2d 636 (Fla.1953) (pothole in road); City of Miami Beach v. Quinn, 149 Fla. 326, 5 So.2d 593 (1942) (depression in road surface); City of Tallahassee v. Fortune. But a municipality was held immune from damages caused by the negligent maintenance of the grass-covered area between a city sidewalk and street, Kitchen v. City of Jacksonville, 158 Fla. 621, 29 So.2d 441 (1947), and an improperly functioning traffic signal, Avey v. City of West Palm Beach, 152 Fla. 717, 12 So.2d 881 (1943).

This Court recognized the inconsistency and confusion in Florida municipal sovereignty law in Hargrove v. Town of Cocoa Beach, 96 So.2d 130 (1957), where Justice Thornal stated: "The problem in Florida has become more confusing because of an effort to prune and pare the rule of immunity rather than...

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