Judge Kevin Emas (J. Albert Diaz)
A state appellate court on Wednesday upheld a ruling protecting a motorist under the stand your grand law from a civil suit seeking damages after a road rage encounter in a mall parking lot.
The Third District Court of Appeal affirmed Miami-Dade Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola ruling in favor of civil immunity for the husband of a disabled woman who came to her aid in a dispute with a psychiatrist.
“Most of the research out there is criminal, so I would say this is pretty groundbreaking on the stand your ground law,” said attorney Christine Marichal, an associate at Fleitas, Bujan & Fleitas in Miami who helped represent Julio Rafael Seliman-Tapia. The firm’s partner, Jesus Bujan, argued the case on appeal.
The three-judge panel said it didn’t matter in the civil case that Seliman-Tapia pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
District Judge Kevin Emas, writing for the unanimous panel, said Seliman-Tapia was still entitled to invoke immunity in the civil assault lawsuit brought by Dr. Francisco Pages.
A call for comment to Page’s Coral Gables office was not returned by deadline. His attorney, Assistant Regional Counsel Richard G. Bartmon of West Palm Beach, said he had no comment.
The incident involving the men occurred at the Dolphin Mall in suburban Miami on Dec. 27, 2009.
Pages parked his car close enough to Seliman-Tapia’s vehicle that it rendered it inoperable. A device had been installed in the vehicle to disable it if it were struck or moved.
Witnesses said Seliman-Tapia tried to back away from an aggravated Pages as the doctor started bumping into him with his chest. Pages’ wife, Sonia, got between the men, and Seliman-Tapia’s disabled wife told the doctor to calm down.
That’s when Pages lunged toward Seliman-Tapia’s wife and he pushed Pages to the ground. The doctor hit his head.
Seliman-Tapias’ wife is paralyzed on much of the right side of her body. The couple was visiting family in the Miami area from the Dominican Republic.
Seliman-Tapia “would be justified in using nondeadly force against Dr. Pages if he reasonably believed such force was necessary to defend himself or (Tapia’s disabled wife) against Dr. Pages’ imminent use of unlawful force,” Emas wrote.
Sonia Pages testified at an evidentiary hearing that Seliman-Tapia picked up her husband and slammed him to the ground after pushing him down, but no other witnesses corroborated her story, and her testimony was found not credible.
Seliman-Tapia was charged with felony battery on Pages and misdemeanor battery on his wife. Seliman-Tapia pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor, and the felony was dismissed.
“Realistically, he pleaded guilty because he just wanted to be done with it,” Marichal said.
Seliman-Tapia served no jail time, paid a small fine and donated money to a charity of the Pages’ choosing, she said.
The Pages sued in 2011, claiming assault and loss of consortium. Seliman-Tapia claimed immunity under Florida’s stand your ground law.
“It started over something so small. And then he went crazy over nothing, and the fact that he even went a step further and sued our client is ridiculous,” Marichal said.
She said the Pages contended during oral argument that Seliman-Tapia waived immunity under the stand your ground law when he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor since he admitted unlawful behavior.
The appellate ruling upheld the finding that Seliman-Tapia was entitled to assert his right to seek protection under the state Statute 776.12 outlining justifiable use of force and the immunity provision in Statute 776.032.
The law has been criticized because it has been used to justify fatal shootings of unarmed people including Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford and Chad Oulson at a Pasco County movie theater.
On Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton led hundreds of people on a march at the state Capitol in Tallahassee to rally against the law.
Emas underscored it was Pages who was the initial aggressor.
“Even Dr. Pages admitted he was screaming and waving his arms at Tapia and that he bumped Tapia with his chest,” Emas said in the nine-page opinion.
Judges Richard J. Suarez and Thomas Logue concurred.
Eight witnesses testified at the June evidentiary hearing before General Magistrate Elizabeth Schwabedissen. Hogan Scola adopted the magistrate’s detailed findings that Seliman-Tapia was entitled to immunity.
“We are very happy,” Marichal said. “The court made the right decision. … The law was on our side.”
The same court took a broad view of the law in January, blocking criminal prosecution in a double homicide.
A different panel provided immunity from prosecution to Gabriel Mobley, who faced two second-degree murder charges for a shooting outside a Chili’s Bar & Grill.