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Florida Supreme Court: Name on Title Establishes Vicarious Liability

There is an old principle of English common law that says a master can be held liable for the actions of his servant if the master places the servant in control of something dangerous and an injury occurs as a result. It’s called the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, and it’s been adopted by Florida courts as well, though in practical terms, it’s not “master-and-servant,” but “employer-and-employee” or “parent-and-child.”

This idea that one party can be held liable for the actions of another is something called vicarious liability.

It was on the grounds of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine that one Florida widow sought to establish vicarious liability for the ex-husband of the woman who was behind the wheel of the vehicle that killed her husband. The case, Christensen v. Bowen, was one that Fort Lauderdale car accident attorneys watched closely as it received scrutiny from the Florida Supreme Court.

In the end, the court determined that the fact that ex-husband’s name was still on the title of the motor vehicle was grounds to establish vicarious liability on his part. In other words, he could be sued for a crash that his ex-wife caused in a vehicle they co-owned, despite the fact that he never drove the car and didn’t even have access to it.

To understand how this is possible, let’s look more closely at the case and how the law applies, as spelled out in court records. The car in question, a PT Cruiser, was purchased in 2003 by the husband for his wife, though they both were listed as co-owners of the vehicle. The husband would later say it was a gift, and he never intended to have any further involvement with the car from there on out. By all accounts, he didn’t.

Not long after, the pair initiated and completed divorce proceedings. They lived separately and the car remained in the possession of the ex-wife. However, the title remained in both of their names.

About two years after the purchase of the car, the ex-wife was involved in a fatal crash that resulted in a death. The widow of that man filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both the driver of the car and her ex-husband, as a co-owner of the vehicle.

The husband argued at trial that he didn’t have any liability because he had no control over the car, and he hadn’t since the time it was purchased.

A jury agreed with him, finding he wasn’t at-fault because he didn’t have any control over the vehicle. Similar findings have been seen in cases where rental car companies are released of liability for the negligence of their customers.

But an appellate court reversed this decision, stating that the husband’s intent at the time of purchase was irrelevant and that he did in fact retain beneficial ownership of the vehicle. This sort of stake is determined by whether the title owner is in a position to exact any dominion or control over a vehicle. Whether the title holder used the car or didn’t doesn’t matter, the court indicated.

But being in a “position to exercise control” of that dangerous instrumentality isn’t enough to establish liability when the party doesn’t have an identifiable property interest in the vehicle. A prime example of this was in the 2000 case of Aurbach v. Gallina, where a teenager caused a crash while driving a vehicle for which the title was possessed by her mother. Still, a jury found the father could also be held liable because he was in a position to exert a degree of control over the vehicle. That decision was later reversed by the court because although the father had the power to exert control, he had no property interest in the car.

The bottom line is that victims of car accidents are not limited to the collection of damages solely from the at-fault driver. It pays to explore your options with an attorney who is experienced in Florida injury law.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your Fort Lauderdale car accident injuries.

Additional Resources:
It’s The Law: Name on car title creates liability, April 20, 2014, By William Morris, Marco News

More Blog Entries:
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month in Florida, April 20, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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