Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine & The Graves Amendment

A well-established common law principle in Florida is that motor vehicles are “dangerous instrumentalities.” Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 86 So. 629 (Fla. 1920). In 1941, the Florida Supreme Court held that because the use of a dangerous instrumentality involves such a high degree of risk of serious injury or death, whoever deals in such instrumentalities must exercise the “highest degree of care.” Skinner v. Ochiltree, 5 So.2d 605 (1941). This decree is consistent with the court’s opinion that “as the risk grows greater, so does the duty, because the risk to be perceived defines the duty that must be undertaken.” McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500 (Fla. 1992).

Until 2005, this longstanding and reasonable principle of law applied to both individual private vehicle owners and billion dollar rental car agencies alike. However, with the passage into law of the Graves Amendment, the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration (George W. Bush), allowed rental car agencies across the country to escape liability for serious personal injuries caused by their rental vehicles.

The constitutionality of the law is being challenged in courts across the nation. One of the main arguments in opposition to the federal law is that the individual states should be allowed to create laws that effect its own residents. The constitutionality issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.