Because motor vehicles, like guns, in the wrong hands and used improperly are likely to cause great damage, Florida has developed two legal doctrines aimed at holding vehicle owners liable for the harm resulting from the negligent operation of their vehicles by others. The doctrines are vicarious liability and negligent entrustment.
Regarding motor vehicles, vicarious liability has been recognized in Florida since 1920. Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920). Under this doctrine, a vehicle owner is liable without fault for damages caused by the negligent operation of his or her vehicle by a consensual driver. (The owner is not liable, for example, if the vehicle is stolen. However, the doctrine may be applied against the owner if a non-consensual driver comes into possession of a vehicle through the owner's negligence, such as where the owner leaves his car keys out at a house party of unsupervised young drinking adults. This element can bleed into the doctrine of negligent entrustment, explained below.) Damages available from the vicariously liable vehicle owner are capped by Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)3, which means that actual damages may exceed the owner's exposure.
The distinguishing element of negligent entrustment from vicarious liability is that the owner is independently at fault in granting consensual use of the vehicle. Florida courts consistently hold that one who negligently entrusts a car to someone is liable for damages flowing from the misuse of that car. Clooney v. Geetting, 352 So. 2d 1216 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1977) ("we see no reason why this theory is not available to claimants injured in automobile accidents in this state.") The Florida Supreme Court long ago held that because the use of a dangerous instrumentality involves such a high degree of risk of serious injury or death, the highest degree of care is required. Skinner v. Ochiltree, 5 So. 2d 605 (Fla. 1941).