Newton v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs. Corp., No. SC17-67

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Writing for the CourtQUINCE, J.
Citation253 So.3d 1054
Docket NumberNo. SC17-67
Decision Date27 September 2018
Parties Anthony NEWTON, Petitioner, v. CATERPILLAR FINANCIAL SERVICES CORPORATION, et al., Respondents.

253 So.3d 1054

Anthony NEWTON, Petitioner,
v.
CATERPILLAR FINANCIAL SERVICES CORPORATION, et al., Respondents.

No. SC17-67

Supreme Court of Florida.

September 27, 2018


T. Patton Youngblood, Jr. of Youngblood Law Firm, St. Petersburg, Florida; and Steven L. Brannock and Thomas J. Seider of Brannock & Humphries, Tampa, Florida, for Petitioner

Hala Sandridge and Blake J. Delaney of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, PC, Tampa, Florida, for Respondent Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation

QUINCE, J.

Petitioner Anthony Newton seeks review of Newton v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corp. , 209 So.3d 612 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016), on the ground that it expressly and directly conflicts with decisions of this Court and other district courts.1 We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const. For the reasons that follow, we find that loaders are dangerous instrumentalities and quash the district court decision below.

FACTS

C & J Bobcat and Hauling, LLC, hired Anthony Newton as an independent contractor to assist its agent, Charles Cram, in clearing debris from a private lot in a residential area. Newton , 209 So.3d at 613. Cram and Newton used a multi-terrain loader to clear the lot. Id. Cram leased the loader from Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation (Caterpillar) and transported the loader to the private lot in a box trailer. Id. Cram disencumbered the box trailer and briefly drove the loader on the street before driving it onto the private lot. Id. Cram and Newton used the loader to dump debris into another box trailer for disposal. Id. The disposal trailer was parked on a public street.

While trying to move a tree stump into the disposal trailer, Cram asked Newton to climb inside and pack down the debris. Id. While Newton was inside, Cram released the stump from the loader's bucket into the disposal trailer. Id. Newton tried to warn Cram that he was still in the disposal trailer, but Cram could not hear him. Id.

253 So.3d 1056

As Newton attempted to climb out of the disposal trailer, the stump rolled over his hand. Id. The stump severed Newton's middle finger. Id.

Newton filed suit against Caterpillar, alleging that Caterpillar was liable for the injuries he sustained from Cram's negligent operation of the loader because the loader was a dangerous instrumentality. Id. at 613-14. Newton and Caterpillar filed competing motions for summary judgment disputing whether loaders are dangerous instrumentalities, each accompanied by affidavits from experts. Id. at 614. Newton's expert described the physical capabilities of loaders, including the ability to lift 2300 pounds to a height of approximately 9.5 feet. Id. at 614. Caterpillar's expert gave statistics about the loader, including the number of accidents involving the exact model of loader in this case which have been reported to Caterpillar. Id. at 615. The trial court heard arguments from both parties, found that loaders are not dangerous instrumentalities, and granted summary judgment in favor of Caterpillar. Id. at 615-16, 618.

ANALYSIS

Whether loaders are dangerous instrumentalities is a pure question of law and is reviewed de novo. See Rippy , 80 So.3d at 306 (citing D'Angelo v. Fitzmaurice , 863 So.2d 311, 314 (Fla. 2003) ). As we noted in Rippy , "Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes ‘vicarious liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes damage to another.’ " Rippy , 80 So.3d at 306 (quoting Aurbach v. Gallina , 753 So.2d 60, 62 (Fla. 2000) ). The "doctrine is an old and well-settled rule that can be traced back to English common law ... [and applies] to objects that ‘common knowledge and common experience prove[ ] to be ... potent sources of danger.’ " Id. at 306-07 (quoting S. Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson , 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629, 631 (1920) ).

Florida courts consider a variety of factors in applying the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Id. at 308. One of the most important factors is whether the instrumentality is a motor vehicle. Id. Courts also consider whether the instrumentality is frequently operated near the public, but the incident under review need not have occurred on public property for the instrumentality to be dangerous. Id. at 308-09. Another factor is the instrumentality's peculiar dangers relative to other objects that courts have found to be dangerous instrumentalities. See Meister , 462 So.2d at 1073. Courts also consider how extensively the legislature has regulated the instrumentality. See id. at 1072-73. Evaluations of each factor may be based on "common knowledge and common experience" and should not be at odds with "the common opinion among many." S. Cotton Oil Co. , 86 So. at 631, 633. No single factor "is determinative of whether an instrumentality is dangerous." Rippy , 80 So.3d at 308. It "is based on ‘the practical fact that the owner of an instrumentality which [has] the capability of causing death or destruction should in justice answer for misuse of this instrumentality by anyone operating it with his knowledge and consent.’ " Id. at 307 (quoting Meister , 462 So.2d at 1072 ).

First, we examine whether loaders are motor vehicles. Because " the ‘various definitions of "motor vehicle" within the Florida Statutes are not dispositive,’ " Newton , 209 So.3d at 616 (quoting Harding v. Allen-Laux, Inc. , 559 So.2d 107, 108 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990) ), we consult Black's Law Dictionary . A "motor vehicle" is: "A wheeled conveyance that does not run on rails and is self-propelled, esp. one powered by an internal-combustion engine, a battery or fuel-cell, or a combination of

253 So.3d 1057

these." Blacks Law Dictionary 1788 (10th ed. 2014). Loaders are self-propelled, powered by an engine, and can be wheeled conveyances. Common knowledge and plain language demonstrate that loaders, like farm tractors and forklifts, are motor vehicles for the purpose of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

Much like the farm tractors considered in Rippy , loaders are often operated in construction settings and on public rights-of-way and are "vehicles of such size and speed that wherever they are operated, they can be dangerous to those persons who come into contact with them." Rippy , 80 So.3d at 309. The undisputed facts of this case confirm that loaders are frequently used to clear private lots near public streets. This Court is persuaded that, while multi-terrain loaders may operate in public less often than their counterparts, loaders operate near the public frequently. Further, as we noted in Rippy , "the dangerous instrumentality doctrine is not limited to motor vehicles being operated on a public highway and may apply to a motor vehicle operated on private property." Rippy , 80 So.3d at 307 (citing Meister , 462 So.2d at 1073 ).

Loaders are heavy pieces of construction equipment weighing thousands of pounds. Loaders can move heavy loads across streets and unimproved surfaces. Multi-terrain loaders have tank-style treads designed for use on unimproved surfaces, while skid steer loaders have large tires designed for improved surfaces. Some loaders, like the one in this case, can be converted from treads to tires. Attached to their front ends, loaders have buckets in which heavy items can be lifted above the height of the average person. The bucket can obstruct operator visibility because loaders are operated from within cages in their centers.

The loader in this case weighed 8000 pounds and had treads at the time of the accident, though it could be modified to operate on tires. Newton , 209 So.3d at 614-16 & n.2. Newton's expert averred that the loader could lift 2300 pounds to a height of 9.5 feet and that its design restricted the operator's visibility. Id. at 615. His affidavit also indicated "that the loader's potential momentum placed it within a range of momentums associated with other dangerous instrumentalities." Id. Common knowledge demonstrates that a machine as powerful as a loader has the ability to cause serious injury when operated near or over a public street, just like any motor vehicle operated on a public highway. As the Second District noted below, "the loader is a serious piece of machinery with the capacity to do great harm." Newton , 209 So.3d at 618.

Finally, we hold that Newton's status as an independent contractor does not exclude him from protection under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The doctrine has not treated construction workers as separate from the general public when injured in a public place. See N. Trust Bank of Fla., N.A. v. Constr. Equip. Int'l , 587 So.2d 502, 504 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991) ; cf. Canull v. Hodges , 584 So.2d 1095, 1097 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991). Newton may not have been "a member of the unsuspecting public," Newton 209 So.3d at 616, but his accident occurred on a public street. Newton's employment does not disqualify his accident from coverage under the doctrine.

CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing, we determine that a loader is a dangerous instrumentality as a matter of law. Accordingly, we quash the decision below and remand to the district court with instructions that this case be further remanded to the trial court for an order granting summary judgment in favor of Newton.

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1 practice notes
  • Harris v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 3D21-2164
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • February 8, 2023
    ...to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine was overruled by the Florida Supreme Court in Newton v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corp., 253 So.3d 1054 (Fla. 2018). We agree with the trial court, though, that Newton's primary focus was on whether the vehicle involved in that case (also a ski......
1 cases
  • Harris v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 3D21-2164
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • February 8, 2023
    ...to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine was overruled by the Florida Supreme Court in Newton v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corp., 253 So.3d 1054 (Fla. 2018). We agree with the trial court, though, that Newton's primary focus was on whether the vehicle involved in that case (also a ski......

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