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Universal Ins. Co. v. Office of the Ins. Comm’r – Rental Car Company Must Pay for Driver Negligence

Florida’s most critical industry is tourism, so we tend to have a large number of individuals at any given time who rent vehicles while traveling in our state.

While these individuals bring dollars to our state, they unfortunately sometimes cause crashes as well. Visitors may be unfamiliar with the area, unfamiliar with the vehicle, distracted, drunk and potentially very fatigued after a long trip.

For years, rental car companies could be held vicariously liable for negligent customers under the same standards as private citizens who allowed third-parties to drive a vehicle. The problem, as our Hollywood car accident lawyers know, was that state laws vary when it comes to liability, so the federal government sought to establish a uniform standard via the Graves Amendment. This statute had the effect of carving out an exception to vicarious liability for rental car companies.

Since then, appellate and state supreme courts all over the country have wrestled with whether the federal statute is applicable to state cases. Florida is no exception. Recently, even courts in Puerto Rico weighed in with Universal Ins. Co. v. Office of the Ins. Comm’r. The matter was recently reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

In this case, the crash occurred in 2009, as the at-fault driver operated a rental vehicle. The rental was insured by a commercial auto insurance policy.

Following the crash, the injured victim filed a claim with the insurer, which denied coverage. The injured woman requested a review of the denial by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner. The office determined the denial was improper, ordered the insurer to resolve it and fined the company $1,000.

There were a series of appeals of that decision by the insurer, which cited the Graves Amendment in its defense. The company argued this statute held it harmless. The commission disagreed.

Rather than appeal the final decision, the insurer instead filed a complaint in federal court. However, the federal district court dismissed the claim on the grounds of res judicata. In other words, ruling it would be inappropriate for federal court to decide an issue that had already been decided by a lower court. The federal appellate court affirmed that decision.

Here, the order for damages to the injured driver will stand.

In Florida, personal injury cases against rental car companies may be more difficult, particularly in the wake of the 2011 Florida Supreme Court decision in Vargas v. Enterprise Leasing Co. In that decision, the court determined the Graves Amendment does apply to Florida cases.

This means injured parties can sue the driver directly, but may have a tougher time establishing a case against the rental car company. The exception would be if the driver purchased insurance as part of the rental agreement.

Still, this doesn’t indemnify the company in all situations.

An experienced personal injury lawyer should be able to give you a good sense of all possible defendants in your case.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Universal Ins. Co. v. Office of the Ins. Comm’r, June 19, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Guillen v. Vang et al – Fifth District Sets Aside Allegations of Fraud on Court, June 9, 2014, Hollywood Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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