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).
Negligent entrustment is a recognized cause of action in nearly every state. Florida is no exception. Kitchen v. K-mart Corp., 697 So. 2d 1200 (Fla.1997); Moates v. Register, 588 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991); Gorday v. Faris, 523 So. 2d 1215 (Fla. 1st DCA 1988); Lambert v. Indian River Elec., Inc., 551 So. 2d 518 (Fla. 4th DCA 1989). In Moates, the defendant loaned his car to his niece. She caused a crash. The victim, the plaintiff, sued the owner for vicarious liability and negligent entrustment. The trial court entered Restatement of Torts. Section 390, known as the law of negligent entrustment, sets out the following standard of care:
One who supplies a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience or otherwise to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.
Significantly, the damages awardable under negligent entrustment are not limited by the arbitrary damage caps of Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)3 applicable to vicarious liability claims.
Regardless of the legal theory by which a vehicle owner is held to account, whether or not an accident victim is fully compensated often depends on the type and amount of available insurance coverage. Unfortunately, most Florida vehicle owners are not fully and adequately insured.
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