Winning a "stand your ground" hearing to avoid criminal prosecution in Florida doesn't automatically grant immunity from civil suits, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case over a barroom fight.
Despite language in state law that gives civil liability protections to people who use force to defend themselves, a hearing that finds someone immune from criminal prosecution can't be applied in civil court, the ruling says.
The case involves an incident at a Tampa bar in which Ketan Kumar attacked Nirav Patel without provocation, according to court documents. Patel responded by hitting Kumar in the face with a cocktail glass, causing Kumar to permanently lose sight in his left eye. Patel was charged with felony battery, but was granted immunity under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people to use force to defend themselves.
Then Kumar sued Patel, and Patel's lawyer said the case should be thrown out because of protections in the law. An appeals court agreed.
But the Supreme Court says a separate immunity process is required for civil cases. Among the reasons: The Legislature never clearly stated that one hearing would cover both criminal and civil cases, the law spells out that civil plaintiffs have to pay defendants' legal fees if defendants successfully argue they acted in self-defense, and a new law last year created a different burden of proof in criminal cases.
Patel's lawyer expressed surprise, saying the Legislature intended to protect people who use self-defense from all court proceedings, not to make them defend their actions twice.
"Immunity is immunity — you either have it or you don't. It's like you're pregnant or you're not pregnant," Steve Romine said.
Romine said he is confident Patel will prevail in the civil "stand your ground" hearing, too. He said Kumar approached Patel and punched him in the face without saying anything and with no warning, and Patel simply reacted as anyone would to protect himself. He said the two men had never met and never spoken before the unprovoked attack.
"The end result here is fine for my client, it's just now that he's going to have to endure the hassle and time and cost of having another hearing," Romine said. "Now we're going to take up court time again and we're going to take up his time and everybody else's time to re-litigate something that I think the Legislature never intended to happen."
Kumar's lawyer didn't return a message seeking comment.