FL Lawmakers Seek to Make Self-Defenders Vulnerable to Lawsuits

A panel of Florida legislators is contriving to gut the law that provides criminal and civil immunity to citizens who lawfully defend themselves against lethal attack.

Drawn together in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial with the claimed mission of “improving” Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (§776.013(3). Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm), these lawmakers instead have set their sights on Florida’s Self-Defense Immunity law (§776.032. Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.)

Florida’s Self-Defense Immunity statute provides that a person who lawfully uses force in self-defense shall be immune from criminal and civil liability. This immunity can be determined either pre-trial in a self-defense immunity hearing (often mistakenly referred to as a “Stand Your Ground” hearing) or during the trial itself. To win on this issue the person seeking immunity must be found to have acted in lawful self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence (meaning, more likely than not).

Importantly, this immunity statute comes with real teeth. If a civil suit is brought against a defender, and he is later found to have acted in lawful self-defense, the court is required–no discretion–to award the defender attorney’s fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred by the defendant in defense of that suit. Importantly, this monetary award would be paid for by the party bringing the law suit, not by the taxpayers of Florida. The statute therefore provides a powerful disincentive to someone bringing suit against someone who apparently acted in lawful self-defense.

Without this immunity statute a defender can easily be placed at great peril of economic destruction. Normally in a civil suit the jury is allowed to apportion liability between the parties. If a defender who successfully defended himself against a vicious criminal attack is later sued by his attacker (or the attacker’s survivors) for, say, $10 million, the jury might determine the defender is merely 10% at fault. In that case, however, the defender, however lawful his use of force in self-defense may have been, must not still cough up 10% of the damages sued for–in our hypothetical that would amount to a cool $1 million. The criminal aggressor’s lawyer would typically retain one-third of that amount for the legal fee, and more, for their overhead).

Florida’s self-defense immunity statute prevents this kind of secondary attack by criminal aggressors in the civil courts.

Given the vast amount of moneys being kept out of the reach of plaintiff’s lawyers by the Self-Defense Immunity statute it’s not hard to understand why there might be powerful forces working to cut that law. Fortunately, both Stand Your Ground and Self-Defense Immunity are hugely popular among the non-criminal demographic in Florida, and there is little expectation that any attempt to gut either statute will find much footing in either the State House or Senate, beyond the confines of this purposely-organized committee.

Jun 25, 2022 12:30 PM ET