January 22, 2024

The Doctrine of Unavoidable Accidents: Is That a Thing?

Well, is it a thing? In short, yes and no. In circumstances surrounding a motor vehicle accident, it is a concept that, in the past, has allowed for a jury instruction that the accident was unavoidable. But legally, what is an unavoidable accident?  

“An unavoidable accident is a set of circumstances that occurs while all parties involved are exercising ordinary care with no one at fault; it is an accident created by a culmination of uncontrolled events arising from a source other than the negligence of the plaintiff or the defendant. Retty v. Troy, 188 So. 2d 568 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966)” 6 Fla. Prac. § 3:13 (2023-2024).  

The concept first appeared in Florida in 1929. In Florida Motor Lines, Inc. v. Casad, 1929, 98 Fla. 720, 124 So. 180, the Court stated: “(i)f you find from the evidence … that the injury complained of was the result of an unavoidable accident, you must find for the defendant. An accident is that which happens without the fault of anyone and without or beyond one’s foresight or expectation. When both parties exercise ordinary care, an injury resulting to one of them is relative to them the result of an accident.” See also Sirmons v. Pittman, 138 So. 2d 765 (Fla. 1st DCA 1962.  

Conversely, if the circumstances surrounding the accident that caused injuries could have been avoided by a party involved using common prudence, the accident is not unavoidable. See Retty v. Troy, supra. Thus, for the doctrine to apply, the injury cannot result from the negligence of any party. Kasper Instruments, Inc. v. Maurice, 394 So. 2d 1125 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981); Sirmons v. Pittman, 138 So. 2d 765 (Fla. 1st DCA 1962).   

The linchpin of this doctrine is:  

“[An] unavoidable accident does not necessarily mean one which it is physically impossible like things for the defendant to have prevented, but one in which ordinary care and diligence could not have prevented the happening of the things that did happen; one which could not have been foreseen or prevented; and in this sense, the term is held to be equivalent to, or synonymous with, ‘mere accident’ or ‘pure accident.'” Scott v. Barfield, 202 So. 2d 591, 593 (Fla. 4th DCA 1967), citing Retty v. Troy, 188 So. 2d 568, 572 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966), and quoting 65 C.J.S., Negligence § 21 at 430.  

Thus, when applying this doctrine, the defendant argues that she did not breach a duty to the plaintiff.  

Previously, Florida courts have allowed for a special jury instruction on unavoidable accidents in negligence cases. See Thomason v. Miami Transit Co., 100 So. 2d 620 (Fla. 1958); McCollum v. Florida Power & Light Co., 125 So. 2d 754 (Fla. 3d DCA 1961); Sirmons v. Pittman, 138 So. 2d 765 (Fla. 1st DCA 1962); Retty v. Troy, 188 So. 2d 568 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966); Scott v. Barfield, 202 So. 2d 591 (Fla. 4th DCA 1967).  

However, more recently, in Smith v. Canevary, 553 So. 2d 1312 (Fla. 3d DCA 1989) quoting with approval Butigan v. Yellow Cab Co., 49 Cal. 2d 652, 320 P.2d 500, 504–505, 65 A.L.R.2d 1 (1958), the Court stated: “In the modern negligence action the plaintiff must prove that the injury complained of was proximately caused by the defendant’s negligence, and the defendant under general denial may show any circumstances which militates against his negligence or its causal effect.” The so-called defense of inevitable accident is nothing more than a denial by the defendant of negligence, or a contention that his negligence, if any, was not the proximate cause of the injury.  

The Canevary Court further held that “absent extraordinary circumstances, it is reversible error to give an unavoidable accident instruction in a negligence case. The Court gave several reasons for its ruling:  

  1. The Florida Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases do not contain a standard instruction on the doctrine of unavoidable accidents;  
  2. The Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions recommends that no such charge be given;  
  3. The doctrine of unavoidable accidents is subsumed in the general concepts and elements of negligence and any instruction should come from the attorneys in closing arguments; and  
  4. A jury instruction on this doctrine is not only unnecessary but would tend to confuse the jury.”  

Smith v. Canevary, 553 So. 2d 1312 (Fla. 3d DCA 1989). See also Sierra v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc., 646 So. 2d 264 (Fla. 3d DCA 1994).  

For a breach to occur, the conduct of the Defendant must be the actual or proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and the injuries must be foreseeable, and no intervening or superseding cause cuts off liability. Gibson v. Avis Rent-A-Car System, Inc., 386 So. 2d 852 (Fla. 1980); Cooke v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Inc. Co., 14 So. 3d 1192 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009).  

Suppose you find yourself in a case where the circumstances are such that you believe the accident was unavoidable. In that case, the defendant’s argument is a denial of liability under the theory that the defendant did not breach a duty to the plaintiff. Look for intervening or superseding causes that would cut off liability. Consider Fabre Defendants to lessen liability potentially. And finally, always consider the plaintiff’s comparative negligence: if more than 50% at fault, the claim is barred. 

If you have any questions or wish to arrange for evaluation of a particular claim, I welcome you to contact me directly.  

Catherine Arpen, Esq.
Partner, General Liability & Third-Party Insurance Defense
Kelley Kronenberg-Jacksonville, FL.
(904) 549-7700