The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is a long-established principle of tort law. Under this doctrine, a person with a property interest in a vehicle is vicariously and strictly liable for the injuries that result from negligent operation of that vehicle by a person to whom he or she granted custody of it. Although the principle is well established, questions regarding its application still arise. For example, in one recent case, Christensen v. Bowen, the Supreme Court addressed a question that arose from it, which had been certified to it by the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Bowen arose from a motor vehicle accident that occurred in early 2005 when one of the defendants, the former wife of the other defendant, negligently struck and killed another person while operating the vehicle. At the time of the accident, title to the vehicle remained in the name of both the defendants, although the vehicle had been purchased while the defendants were in the process of getting a divorce. At the time of purchase, the then-married defendants signed an application for certificate of title to be issued to them as owner and co-owner. The then-husband never received copy of the certificate of title, since it was mailed to his wife’s address. In addition, the then-husband never had keys or access to the vehicle. Following the accident, the estate of the deceased brought suit against the driver and her former husband. The former wife moved for a directed verdict on the ground that her former husband was an “owner,” but the trial court denied the motion. A jury eventually found that the former husband was not an owner for purposes of applying the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, but his former wife appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by not granting her motion for a directed verdict on ownership. The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed but certified the question to the Supreme Court of Florida as a question of great public importance.