Co-Ownership of Florida Motor Vehicle Can Mean (Full) Liability

crushed vehicle.jpgFlorida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, a part of Florida jurisprudence since 1920 (Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920)), holds a motor vehicle owner vicariously liable for damages caused by the negligent operation of his or her vehicle by a permissive user. The damage caps contained in Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)(3) limit the owner’s liability.

In Ortiz v. Regalado, So.3d. , 38 FLW D502a (Fla. 2d DCA 3-1-13), a vehicle owner asserted that he was entitled to this cap protection for an accident caused by the co-owner of his vehicle. The owners of the vehicle were father and son. The son crashed their jointly owned vehicle, killing a minor child. Father and son we’re sued. The father was sued on the theory of vicarious liability as the owner of the vehicle. The son was sued as the owner and negligent operator.

The jury awarded millions in damages allocated between the two defendants. .

The father tried to reduce his share of the damage award to the cap limits under 324.021(9)(b)(3). Agreeing with the trial court, the Second DCA denied the father the benefit of the statutory cap on the damage award. According to the DCA, the cap provisions of 324.021 deal with vehicles that are loaned to permissive users, rather than vehicles that are used by a co-owner with equal use rights to the vehicle.

Assuming the father purchased the vehicle for his son, his financial responsibility would have been limited substantially if the vehicle had been titled in his name alone. Had the vehicle been titled in the son’s name only, the father would have avoided financial responsibility altogether.

(Stay tuned, the issue is not settled. The DCA certified this issue to the Florida Supreme Court as being one of great public importance.)
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