State Politics

Drone operators in Florida could be held liable for any damage

A proposal being considered in the Florida Legislature would allow people to recover the costs of injury and property damage for which a drone “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing.
A proposal being considered in the Florida Legislature would allow people to recover the costs of injury and property damage for which a drone “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing. Star-Telegram

As unmanned commercial drones continue climbing in popularity, so does the potential for accidents in which wayward devices might physically harm people or damage property.

Under current Florida law, there’s nothing a victim could do about such an accident, so a Republican state senator from Miami said he wants to fill that “void in the law.”

The proposal from state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla would provide a legal recourse for victims of drone accidents to recoup their expenses should a drone — for example — lose control and hit a high-voltage electric line or tumble into a crowd of people.

“They’re very hard to control and they can cause massive damage if they fall,” Diaz de la Portilla said of the devices, which can have a variety of functions and sizes, ranging from personal cameras that can be lofted into the air to armed military aircraft.

Senate Bill 642 would allow people to recover costs from the owner and operator of a drone if the device “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing the damage. The manufacturer and distributor of the device also could be sued if the damage resulted from a defect or design flaw.

Diaz de la Portilla said he hasn’t gotten any feedback on his legislation yet, but he expects discussion next week when the bill gets its first vetting before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Diaz de la Portilla chairs. The hearing is Tuesday.

He said no particular instance inspired the bill, but he said there have been reports nationwide of drones causing damage to people, cars and buildings.

They’re very hard to control and they can cause massive damage if they fall.

state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami

Here in Florida, a woman in June reported to police that she’d been sitting outside of a downtown Tampa bar when a drone started hovering around her. It followed her to her car before crashing into the vehicle’s roof, according to a report by WFLA-TV.

Concerns about larger drones, in particular, have sparked the Federal Aviation Administration to propose mandatory registration for certain types of drone aircraft.

There’s also a proposed rule that would require operators to report instances of damage or injury, but there’s no planned regulation on liability, Diaz de la Portilla said.

“When you take a look at the whole context of how little it takes to get a drone and operate it and the massive damage they could cause if they fall or crash into someone or something, you need to have a law that gives a recourse to people that suffer damage to themselves or their property,” he said.

The legislation would build upon other Florida laws enacted in recent years that already protect personal privacy and regulate the use of drones by law enforcement.

In 2013, the Legislature unanimously passed the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act” prohibiting law enforcement officers from using drones to gather evidence unless they have a warrant or there’s “imminent danger” to life or property. Last spring, lawmakers beefed up that law by making it illegal to use surveillance drones anywhere there’s a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, filed the House companion (House Bill 459) to Diaz de la Portilla’s bill. It awaits its first hearing.

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