Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is shielded from a lawsuit involving allegations that a prisoner-transport van improperly lacked seatbelts, causing a man to be injured, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
Ronald Pownall filed the lawsuit against Gualtieri and G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc., a contractor that operated the van, after an incident stemming from a November 2016 arrest.
Pownall was placed in the back of the van and alleged that he was injured after the driver slammed on the brakes, causing him to be thrown from his seat. The lawsuit alleged, in part, that Gualtieri’s department negligently removed seatbelts from the back of the van.
A circuit judge rejected Gualtieri’s motion to dismiss the allegation, but a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that the sheriff was shielded by sovereign immunity, which is generally designed to protect government officials and agencies from lawsuits.
“The decision of a law enforcement agency to provide seatbelts in vehicles used to transport prisoners or detainees clearly involves important policy considerations regarding the safety of prisoners and detainees, law enforcement, corrections staff and the public,” said the 12-page ruling, written by Judge John Stargel and joined by Judges Morris Silberman and Craig Villanti. “We hold that the decision to remove seatbelts from the vehicle in this case was a discretionary function for which the sheriff is protected by sovereign immunity.”