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Legal Liability after Woman Falls to Death When Drawbridge Opens

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An unidentified woman fell to her death as the drawbridge of Royal Park Bridge, Florida opened up. She was walking her bicycle on the sidewalk portion of the bridge that connects West Palm Beach to Palm Beach just after 1 p.m. on February 6, 2022. A skateboarder several feet from the woman attempted to grab hold of her arm but couldn’t keep his grip. However, she fell about five stories and died upon impact on the concrete below the bridge.

The bridge tender witnessed the woman fall but apparently couldn’t prevent it in time.  The bridge has safety procedures such as crossing arms, warning signs, and layers of checking to make sure there are no cars or people on the bridge when it goes up. The Royal Park Bridge is the main bridge to enter Palm Bridge, though there are two others. The Bridge is maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation but a private contractor employs the bridge’s tenders.

Florida Royal Park BridgeThe Bridge Operator’s Burden of Proof?

A plaintiff normally has the burden of proving that a defendant was responsible for their injuries. In some instances though, the legal doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” applies and it becomes the defendant’s burden to prove that the defendant was not negligent. Res Ipsa Loquitur applies when an accident wouldn’t occur without someone being negligent and when the instrument is entirely in the hands of a defendant. The typical example of Res Ipsa Loquitur is when a surgeon leaves a scissor or another instrument inside a patient. The shifting of the burden of proof will result in an uphill battle for a defendant to win instead.

People don’t normally fall off of drawbridges. While people may slip and fall inside a store, bridges are reliably solid and it is rare that someone would fall through a bridge. A fall from a drawbridge opening does not occur unless something went very wrong. Furthermore, the controls to lift the drawback are solely in the hands of the drawbridge tender and nobody else would have access to the controls. The unique circumstances of this accident may ultimately require the bridge control company to prove that it was doing everything correctly rather than require the victim’s family to prove that the tender was in the wrong.

Gross Negligence and Comparative Negligence

Gross negligence is the failure to exercise even the slightest amount of care. Gross negligence involves conduct that may be obviously dangerous or outrageously unreasonable. For instance, a doctor operating on the wrong limb or a caregiver failing to provide food to an elderly person for several weeks may be liable for gross negligence. Gross negligence can be considered a heightened or extreme version of ordinary negligence where the defendant essentially takes no action to prevent injury or even increases the risk of injury.

Authorities are still investigating whether the usual safeguards were in place to prevent this tragedy. The crossing arms, warning signs, and pedestrian/vehicle checking system should have been sufficient this incident unless the bridge operator ignored any of the warnings in place or failed to check whether there was anyone crossing the bridge before raising it. If the bridge operator intentionally ignored or failed to check the bridge beforehand, it is plausible that the operator was grossly negligent.

Conversely, if the woman chose to ignore the crossing arms and entered after the gates were lowered, then she may have contributed to her own death. While gross negligence will enhance a defendant’s liability, contributory or comparative negligence will reduce a defendant’s liability or absolve a defendant altogether, depending on the state’s laws.

Do You Need the Help of a Personal Injury Attorney?

If you have sustained a personal injury or if a loved one has died because of the unlawful act of another, you should contact a personal injury attorney. A skilled personal injury lawyer can review the facts of your case, go over your rights and options, and represent you in court.


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