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Florida’s New Drone Law, Restricting “Surveillance,” Is a Gift to Personal Injury Lawyers

| September 1, 2015

drones lawsuits florida surveillance law

The beast mulls a lawsuit. (Mauricio Lima)

By Nancy Smith

Look for lawmakers to revisit Florida’s new drone law. Maybe later rather than sooner. But certainly tweaks are on the horizon for a law governing a budding industry that few understand and even fewer trust. The bill the Legislature passed last session and Gov. Rick Scott signed May 14 — the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act — lays out a gold-plated welcome mat for personal injury law firms looking to establish a new cottage industry.

The law says using unmanned aircraft to take photos or record videos of people on private property is now illegal in Florida. Not that scofflaws will be sent to jail. But the bill authorizes injured parties to sue if they can prove they’ve been financially damaged.

And here’s what has little leprechauns dancing in lawyers’ heads: Tough-to-prove actual damages might be small, but if the court finds for the plaintiff, the lawyer can collect his fees from the defendant.

Matt Grosack, a Miami-based associate with DLA Piper Global Law Firm, explains it:

“One of the criticisms of the law is, there are a lot of hungry lawyers out there who will be pushing litigation,” he told Sunshine State News. “In a drone case, I can’t imagine actual damages are going to be that high. There has to be a permanent record of the surveillance and you have to prove an intent to commit surveillance — that is, an intent to get information on someone. But ultimately, if the court says, as a plaintiff you’re due $500 in damages, the defendant also has to pay the $25,000 attorneys’ fees to litigate, or whatever the cost is.”

Grosack calls drones “probably the most disruptive piece of technology to the expectation of privacy we’ve seen in many, many years. … Most lobbyists and people involved with the new law consider it a work in progress. They know it’s just a start. … The technology is advancing very quickly and there’s not even any case law yet, so we don’t know how the courts will react.”

Law enforcement agencies are still figuring out how the law will be enforced. Some say the way it’s worded makes it a civil matter. Which means an officer may respond to a call and write a report, but won’t necessarily — in fact, probably won’t — make an arrest.

nancy-smith-beg-to-differWhat makes drones so disruptive to our expectation of privacy, as Grosack puts it, isn’t just that the small aircraft are relatively inexpensive, have become mainstream, requre a low-level of technical knowledge and are difficult to hear or see — it’s also that drone incubators, manufacturers and suppliers are springing up all over, including in Florida. For a good feel of how many of these new companies we’re talking about, read the Miami Herald’s May 3 Business story, “Romancing the drone: Demand takes off in South Florida.”

Drones are an explosive “happening” thing. Like medical marijuana, there’s an entrepreneurial rush to get in on the act. But states like Florida have been groping in the dark since 2013, trying to move quickly to get legislation on the books.

Already Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service are looking at the possibility of “delivery drones.” And both State Farm and the American Red Cross have Federal Aviation Administration permission to survey property damage.

“You are dealing with what has been valued as an $82 billion industry over the next 10 years that could create 100,000 new jobs in America alone,” says Grosack. ‘When you look at that, you see a lot of opportunity … What you are seeing is a lot of people out there taking the risk and just going for it. …

“The days of skies without drones are numbered,” he said.

High cotton for personal injury attorneys.

There is no uniform global or national approach to how drones should be used legally, whether in the hands of hobbyists or businesses. The FAA can regulate and educate on a national level. Most everything else lies within the province of states, counties and cities. Laws and precedent developed over hundreds of years address trespass, privacy, air traffic and interference with goverment agencies such as police and fire departments.

As exciting as the business future for drones appears, what fertile ground for a bee-swarm of litigation.

“I don’t know if this is something I want to continue with,” said Donald Ramuk, a young entrepreneur building software in a Central Florida drone incubator. “I don’t know if I can afford the insurance against lawsuits, I don’t know if I want the hassle, I don’t even know what’s involved at this point. Certainly, I have a fear of lawyers drumming up business at my expense.”

It’s early, but no bills tweaking Florida’s 2015 drone law have been filed for the 2016 Legislature.

nancy smith sunshine state news columnistNancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.

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7 Responses for “Florida’s New Drone Law, Restricting “Surveillance,” Is a Gift to Personal Injury Lawyers”

  1. Betty Sue says:

    Target Practice !!!!

  2. Geezer says:

    Who needs sporting clays when you have these large targets?
    Those without shotguns can always break out the slingshots
    and shoot some ball bearings at the interloping drones.

    Can we convert the downed drones into lawnmowers?

  3. Shawn says:

    I would like to see a law passed that allows citizens to treat drones as skeet and if a drone is over ones property for a period of time which would constitute invasion of privacy then said property owner is allowed to shoot drone down and then trace ownership in order to sue and recover what is allowed by this new law!!

  4. Robert Bowling says:

    “The law says using unmanned aircraft TO TAKE PHOTOS OR RECORD VIDEOS OF PEOPLE ON PRIVATE PROPERTY is now illegal in Florida.”

    I am sorry but I can’t fathom why the author or anyone would be worried about others losing their right to invade a person’s privacy on their own private property by taking pictures or videos. Seriously?

    Also, the liability would not extend to anyone involved in the manufacture of equipment or software of drones. Clearly only applies to operators who are intent on invading the privacy of others.

    Our right to privacy, as citizens, clearly trumps 3rd parties’ rights to peek onto private property and take photos or videos. I don’t believe the author’s views are mainstream or reflect the values of our country.

  5. Joel C. says:

    “The FAA can regulate and educate on a national level. Most everything else lies within the province of states, counties and cities. Laws and precedent developed over hundreds of years address trespass, privacy, air traffic and interference with goverment agencies such as police and fire departments.”

    The FAA has clearly stated that they regulated all airspace down to almost ground level and have shown that they have almost total legal control over the national airspace in the US.
    The FAA made that point in a case in Hilton Head SC where the FAA stated federal law preempted a local law banning place towing banners. (
    The FAA stated that “The Federal Aviation Administration controls the civil airspace for the United States of America… in most cases, the federal law supersedes any local ordinances.”
    FAA spokeswoman Salac continued to add that “The short of it is, that if people are operating aircraft safely, then there’s nothing to stop them from flying over anywhere in the country,”
    Some aircraft such a helicopter (which are aircraft regulated by the FAA) can legal fly below the 500 ft limit most people quote as being the limit to federal airspace.
    Therefore, the space below 500 ft is also under the regulation of the federal government.
    The US courts have ruled in Huerta v. Pirker that drones are also legal aircraft and under the federal regulations of the FAA.
    If the same laws local government are making were applied to helicopters it would be seen as absurd.
    As legal aircraft drone have a right to fly within the national airspace as long as they are operated within FAA guidelines and in a safe manner.
    As far as privacy and trespass the airspace should be seen as an open roadway.
    Planes, helicopters and even RC planes have been able to fly over land with cameras for years.
    In addition satellite maps give a clear view to most open land.
    In other wards, if you are on land open to the sky you should have no expectation or privacy.
    The very few grievous case involving snooping on people in windows and other such cases can be covered by most “peeping tom” laws.
    Trespass is still yet to be completely legally decided since Causby v. US did not define the “immediate reaches” that make up property owner’s airspace.

  6. Richard Cassell says:

    Do private individuals have the right to fly their personal drones over beaches populated with civilians, including children and the elderly? Does the FAA guideline of flying “in a safe manner” preclude such activity?is it not inherently reckless and dangerous for untrained individuals, especially unsupervised minors, to fly their drones over defenseless civilians? The possibility of a stalled or misguided drone to injure someone on the beach, or literally frighten a senior citizen to death, is surely not worth the risk.

  7. Robert Thebuilder says:

    Since this law is about taking Photos and Video, all Smartphone devices also fall into this privacy law. So it no longer matters if you take a family photo on the beach, you can also be fined if a home or other people are in that photo or video. Florida has just opened a whole new can of communism within the United States. Too many people have little to no understanding of technology that when they believe they made a law against privacy using a “drone”, they also just made a law against camera usage as a whole.

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