Potential Liability Related to Wrong-Way Crash on I-275 Which Killed Five

Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins

In the early morning hours of February 9, 2014, a driver on southbound I-275 near Tampa started filming a white SUV going the wrong way on the northbound lane at a high rate of speed. The video goes on for over 50 seconds, ending in the SUV hitting another car and exploding into a ball of flames.  The video and the accident, which killed a total of five people, made national headlines over the weekend as people remembered the four fraternity brothers from the University of Southern Florida who were killed when struck by the SUV.  The wrong way driver, who was also killed in the crash, has not been identified by police at this time and it is still unclear whether alcohol was a factor.  

As tragic as this case is, most likely there will be no criminal penalties for it under Florida law outside a few specific circumstances.  The driver is dead and obviously cannot be charged.  Nothing is known about the driver at this time, but one of the only ways someone besides the driver could face criminal charges would be if the driver was a minor and someone provided him alcohol.  Even if that is the case, the charge would be a misdemeanor and would not involve an especially harsh sentence.

There could be severe civil penalties related to this accident however.  While the parties could change depending on what the circumstances were, there are a few remedies which the families of the victims will almost definitely have.  First is that the estate of the driver of the SUV will be liable in a wrongful death case.  Even if it ends up that it is impossible to determine what the driver's blood alcohol was, the fact remains that he was going the wrong way down a highway and was either grossly negligent or possibly even acting in an intentional manner in a way which killed people. 

If the owner of the vehicle is someone besides the driver, they are also civilly liable for the deaths of the four college students under Florida law.  Under the "Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine", the owner of a vehicle is liable for injuries or damages which arise from someone else's negligent operation of that vehicle.  This would mean that whoever was on the title, even if they had nothing to do with how the driver was operating the SUV, is most likely financially responsible outside of a few specific circumstances such as the car being stolen.

If it is determined that the driver was drunk at the time of the accident, the bar who served him could also be financially responsible under the Dram Shop law.  Under this law, bars, restaurants, sports venues, etc. who serve someone who is showing signs of being drunk are liable for damages caused by that person's drinking and driving.  However, this would only come into play if the driver had actually been drunk and had bought alcohol at a place like this as opposed to a store, at this time it is too early to tell.