Florida Law: Are ATVs Dangerous Unstrumentalities?

In 1920, the Florida Supreme Court, in Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920), applied the dangerous-instrumentality doctrine to automobiles. The significance of the holding is that owners of automobiles are responsible for personal injuries caused through the negligence of those who drive their vehicles. The legal theory that holds the owner accountable is known as vicarious liability. The Supreme Court reasoned:

This form of vicarious liability is not based on respondent superior or an agency conception, but on the practical fact that the owner of an instrumentality which [has] the capability of causing death or destruction should in justice answer for misuse of this instrumentality by anyone operating it with his knowledge and consent.

(See this blog for a major exception to the danagerous-instrumentality doctrine.)

In 1984, the Florida Supreme Court expanded the dangerous-instrumentality doctrine to include golf carts, even those being used on the golf course. Meister v. Fisher, 462 So. 2d 1071 Fla. 1984). However, as the evolution of common law doctrine moves at a glacial pace, it has not yet been determined if ATVs are dangerous-instrumentalities for purposes of vicarious liability. The question is likely to be answered soon.

The question recently arose in Salsbury v. Kapka, 41 So.3d 1103 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010). Apparently – the opinion says very little about the facts of the case – the plaintiff was injured by an ATV and tried to hold the owner accountable through the dangerous-instrumentality doctrine. The trial court dismissed the case against the owner based on a finding that the ATV was not a dangerous instrumentality. The trial court’s ruling was appealed. The 4th District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court decision, sending the case back to the trial level to make factual findings regarding the issue. Relying on the Meister opinion, the court directed the trial court to determine if ATVs fit the statutory definition of “motor vehicle;” if they were extensively regulated by statute; and record evidence regarding the causes and consequences of ATV accidents.

Unless the case is settled [by the parties] at the trial level, Floridians are likely to get an appellate court answer to the question in the very near future. Stay tuned.

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