If you’re thinking of allowing someone to borrow your car, you may want to think twice. Florida’s longstanding dangerous instrumentality doctrine allows vehicle owners to be held vicariously liable for the negligent actions of those permitted to operate their vehicle. It can even apply to Florida vehicle owners when crashes occur in other states (more on that later).
The dangerous instrumentality doctrine holds that an owner of an inherently dangerous tool can be legally responsible for any injuries that result from operation of that tool. Most people don’t consider cars to be “tools,” but they were established as such by the Florida Supreme Court in the 1920 decision of Southern Cotton Oil v. Anderson. The effect of that ruling was that vehicle owners could be subject to strict vicarious liability, meaning that basically the owner – and everyone whose name is listed on the title – could be held financially responsible for a crash as if they themselves were in the driver’s seat.
When is the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Applicable?
To hold a vehicle owner liable under this doctrine, the plaintiff needs to establish the defendant has an identifiable property interest in the vehicle. Usually, our injury lawyers do this by unearthing the vehicle title.
There are, however, exceptions. For example, under the “shop rule,” if the owner of a vehicle entrusts that vehicle to a service station for repairs, the owner won’t be responsible for the negligence of a repair shop employee. Same if an owner entrusts the vehicle to a valet service.
Another significant exception pertains to car leasing and rental companies. If a person leases or rents a car, the title will reflect ownership by the leasing or rental company. However, those entities will not be responsible for negligent use of that vehicle under the federal Grave’s Amendment.
There may also be exceptions for cases involving a recent vehicle sale. If a person sells their vehicle and the crash occurs before the seller has a reasonable opportunity to transfer the title, they may not be liable. There is also something called the “mere naked title” rule, wherein an owner may sidestep liability if they can show they did not have any beneficial ownership in the vehicle. These defenses should be carefully examined and challenged by your injury lawyer.
Vehicle owners are not vicariously liable for negligent operation if the vehicle has been stolen or intentionally used by the driver as a weapon to inflict injury. A central element in dangerous instrumentality doctrine cases is that the vehicle owner gave permission for the driver to use the vehicle. That is obviously not the case with a stolen vehicle.
Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Applied in Other States
Although many other states have negligent entrustment laws through which vehicle owners can be held liable for the actions of negligent drivers, they are not quite the same as the DID. They require proof that the owner acted negligently in giving permission to use the vehicle, which is not at issue with the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
However, Florida drivers/vehicle owners may still be held vicariously liable under the doctrine, even if the crash occurs in another state. Three years ago, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled in Ward v. Morlock that the Florida resident owner of a vehicle could be held vicariously liable for the negligent actions of a driver leading to a South Carolina crash that injured another Florida resident. The at-fault driver was a Pennsylvania resident.
In South Carolina, the law is that mere ownership of a vehicle isn’t sufficient evidence on its own to establish a vehicle owner’s liability for the driver’s negligence. Defendant vehicle owner argued in Ward that this was the law that applied, since that’s where the crash occurred. The trial court agreed, finding there was no evidence of negligent entrustment. The 5th DCA reversed, noting the owner was a Florida resident and the vehicle was registered here, establishing a reasonable relationship between the owner and the laws of this state. The person injured also resided in Florida, so applying our state law on the issue of liability is consistent with the state’s policy in protecting the injured. Plus, the at-fault driver hadn’t been named as a party to the lawsuit. Collectively, Florida’s interests in protecting residents as well as holding them responsible in this case outweighed the interests of South Carolina.
Whether Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine can be applied to out-of-state cases will depend on the specific details of that case.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
Ward v. Morlock, May 5, 2017, Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal
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