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.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court of Florida started by reviewing the policy rationale for the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which is “to ensure financial recourse to members of the public who are injured by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by imposing strict vicarious liability on those with an identifiable property ownership interest in the vehicle.” Imposition of strict liability is typically premised on the notion “that if a vehicle owner, who has control over the use of the vehicle, exercises his or her control by granting custody of the vehicle to another, the owner commits himself or herself to the judgment of that driver and accepts the potential liability for his or her torts.” The court then noted that an exception to the doctrine does exist when the titleholder lacks the beneficial ownership of a vehicle, which a titleholder demonstrates by showing that he or she does not have the authority to exert any dominion or control over the vehicle and therefore is not a beneficial owner of the vehicle. See Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So. 2d 60, 63-65 (Fla. 2000).
With respect to the certified question, the Supreme Court noted that the beneficial ownership exception is narrow and has only been found to apply when the “titleholder holds title under a conditional sales agreement or has sold the vehicle and transferred possession.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that “in the absence of evidence that the titleholder holds only naked legal title under a conditional sales contract or a faulty incomplete transfer … the certificate titleholder is a beneficial owner as a matter of law and is liable for the permissive use of the vehicle by another person.” It is unimportant whether the person exercises actual control over the vehicle, so long as he or she has a right to and could possess the vehicle, as anyone who is a legal titleholder could do. Likewise, exclusive use of the vehicle by one titleholder does not insulate the other titleholder from liability so long as he or she retains the legal right to use and control the vehicle. Finally, the court held that subjective intent to be a titleholder is unimportant. By jointly submitting an Application for Certificate of Title, the parties knowingly entered into joint ownership of vehicle and became subject to the obligations associated with joint ownership. As the court stated thereafter, “[s]hould a titleholder never intend to use a vehicle and wish[es] to avoid vicarious liability, then the titleholder must divest himself or herself of any interest in the vehicle.” Thus, “beneficial ownership arises from legal rights that allow an individual to exert some dominion and control over the use of the vehicle,” and a showing of a lack of beneficial ownership must relate to factors associated with those legal rights.
Although the former husband in this case likely believes he should not be liable for his former wife’s torts, the Supreme Court’s decision is a major victory for crash victims, for it helps assist those injured in motor vehicle accidents in obtaining the recovery to which they are entitled. Even though the dangerous instrumentality doctrine broadens the field of potentially liable parties, obtaining recovery, as this case and its layers of appeals demonstrate, can be an involved undertaking. Accordingly, one considering filing suit for injury arising from a motor vehicle accident should enlist the assistance of competent counsel before initiating his or her case. The South Florida motor vehicle injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have considerable experience with negligence actions and can offer you this sort of important guidance. If you would like a free case consultation, feel free to contact us. We await your call and are eager to hear your story.