Vehicle Owners – Other Than Rental Agencies – Vicariously Liable Under Florida Law

crushed vehicle.jpgOwners of motor vehicles registered and operated in Florida are vicariously liable for damages caused by their vehicles while operated by a consensual driver. Car rental companies are exempt from this rule.

This form of strict liability is derived from Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, adopted in Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920), which is based on the proposition that motor vehicles operated on public highways are dangerous instruments and the owners who entrust them to others should be liable for injury to others caused by negligence of the persons to whom the instrumentalities are entrusted.

Until 2005, when the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress carved out an exemption, through the Graves Amendment (49 U.S.C. Sec. 30106), the doctrine applied to the car rental industry. To this writer, the exemption is dangerous because it removes nearly every motivation the industry might have to know who is driving its vehicles. (See this blog for an example of what I mean: Profits Over People – The Willful Ignorance of Florida Car Rental Companies.)

While the Graves Amendment, a federal statute, immunizes the rental industry, the liability of other vehicle owners is limited by Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)3., reproduced below:

The owner who is a natural person and loans a motor vehicle to any permissive user shall be liable for the operation of the vehicle or the acts of the operator in connection therewith only up to $100,000 per person and up to $300,000 per incident for bodily injury and up to $50,000 for property damage. If the permissive user of the motor vehicle is uninsured or has any insurance with limits less than $500,000 combined property damage and bodily injury liability, the owner shall be liable for up to an additional $500,000 in economic damages only arising out of the use of the motor vehicle. The additional specified liability of the owner for economic damages shall be reduced by amounts actually recovered from the permissive user and from any insurance or self-insurance covering the permissive user. Nothing in this subparagraph shall be construed to affect the liability of the owner for his or her own negligence.

Subsection (c) provides that “The limits on liability in subparagraphs (b)2. and 3. do not apply to an owner of motor vehicles that are used for commercial activity in the owner’s ordinary course of business, other than a rental company that rents or leases motor vehicles.”

So, what we have in a Florida is a system that holds individuals and companies liable for some if not all of the damages caused by their vehicles, while the industry that makes billions of dollars every year from the operation of their vehicles on our highways is given a free pass.

The Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine makes our highways safer. If allowed to apply to the car rental industry, it would make our highways even safer. As it now stands, the industry has little regard for who operates its vehicles. The Graves Amendment provides it with the cover to operate with this impunity. Remove this cover and the industry will screen its customers. Profits might suffer, but highway safety will improve.
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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.

Contact us toll-free at 866-785-GALE or by email to learn your rights.