Florida adheres to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The doctrine stands for the proposition that since motor vehicles are dangerous instrumentalities, their owners should be held liable for the negligent operation of the vehicles by persons to whom they have been entrusted. The doctrine has been a part of Florida law since 1920. Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920).
While Florida is one of only a handful of states to apply the doctrine, its impact has been watered down by arbitrary damage caps created by the Florida Legislature. The caps, contained in Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)3, read as follows:
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.
The imposition of owner liability is difficult to overcome. Consider these case examples:
- Susco Car Rental Sys. v. Leonard, 112 So.2d at 835, negligence of a person not allowed to drive bound the owner.
- Bowman v. Atlanta Baggage & Cab Co., 173 F. Supp. 282 (N.D. Fla. 1969), liability imposed even where driver exceeded stated area limitations.
- Tillman Chevrolet co. v. Moore, 175 So. 2d 794 (Fla. 1st DCA 1965), cert. discharged, 184 So. 2d 175 (Fla. 1986), owner liable even though accident caused by a hitchiker allowed to drive by a customer convicted of stealing the car.
- Ivey v. National Fisheries, Inc. 215 So. 2d 74 (Fla. 3d DCA 1968), employer who permitted a truck driver to use vehicle for delivery only between home and work liable for driving by drinking buddy given truck after worker stopped at bar and became intoxicated.
Rarer is the situation where owner liability is not imposed. Consider:
- The vehicle has been stolen. Read the Susco case;
- The vehicle has been used without authority by the employee of a facility where the vehicle has been left for repairs. Castillo v. Bickley, 363 So.2d 792 (Fla. 1978);
- The title is held for security purposes, as in a conditional sale; or,
- Where the title is only intended to be held temporarily, as where a transfer of title is in the process but not completed.
Another avenue of escape is by drawing a distinction between being the title owner and the “beneficial owner” of the vehicle.
In Bowen v. Christensen, a Florida 5th DCA case decided in 2011, this defense was employed successfully by the title owner to avoid liability for a wrongful death. Hoping to reconcile, a gentleman purchased his ex-wife a car and had it titled in both of their names. From the time of the purchase to the time of the fatal crash caused by his ex, a period of more than two years, he never drove the vehicle and only saw it one time. He never had access to the car, never had any authority over the car, never had a key, never insured it, and never had it registered. The DCA decided that the man was not the beneficial owner of the vehicle and therefore not vicariously liable for the accident.
Achieving this legal outcome is unusual. Consider:
In Metzel v. Robinson, 102 So.2d 385 (Fla. 1958), liability was imposed on a woman whose nephew, who lived with her, was involved in a motor vehicle accident. She argued that she was not the beneficial owner of the vehicle, having only titled the vehicle in her name and signed the finance agreement on her nephew’s behalf because he was too young to do so himself. The court disagreed, finding that she was in a position to exert some dominion and control over the vehicle.
Hertz Corp. v. Dixon, 193 So.2d 176 (Fla. 1st DCA 1966), an adult who signed a conditional sales agreement and took possession of the vehicle to enable his brother-in-law, who was a minor, to purchase a vehicle, was held liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The court explained as follows:
Here, not only was Gibbs one of the record title holders, but in fact had put in motion and made possible the operation of the automobile by Dixon, who, as a minor, could not have bought the automobile. Not only did Dixon operate the car as a co-owner, but with the knowledge, consent and direct participation by Gibbs in the acquisition of title.
Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Co. v. Ritz, 284 So.2d 474 (Fla. 3d DCA 1973), a father was held liable for the negligence of his son even though the evidence showed that at the time of the accident the son did not live with his father. Moreover, the son operated and retained exclusive control over the vehicle, made monthly payments on the vehicle, and paid the insurance premiums. The telling point was that the father effectuated the vehicle purchase by signing the sales agreement and titling the vehicle in his name for his minor son who could otherwise not do so himself.
The legal issues involving the dangerous instrumentality doctrine are complicated and consequential. When in doubt, seek the advice of a qualified attorney to learn your rights.
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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.