Appellate Court Decides Not to Invoke Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

In a recent opinion from the Third District Court of Appeal for the State of Florida, a plaintiff appealed his claims after he was denied damages in a suit relating to his sustained injuries from a heavy object being dropped onto his foot. The plaintiff attempted to hold Sunbelt, the loader’s owner, directly liable for his injuries. The complaint alleged that Sunbelt should be held liable for its negligent failure to require that the operators of its loaders be properly trained and should be vicariously liable for the defendant’s alleged negligent operation of the loader under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The trial court sided against the plaintiff, which led the plaintiff to appeal.

In this case, the defendant is a licensed contractor who was hired for a clean-up job on private property. The plaintiff accompanied the defendant to the clean-up site and assisted the defendant with cleaning the debris. There were ramps placed inside a bucket attachment that the defendant brought to the cleanup site. After all of the debris was collected, the defendant directed the plaintiff to retrieve the ramps so that the defendant could drive the loader back onto the trailer. The defendant picked up the bucket attachment using the loader’s grapple and drove the loaders toward the trailer. The loader came to a complete stop, and the plaintiff approached the loader on foot and reached into the bucket attachment to retrieve the ramps from within the bucket. While doing so, the loader lurched forward unexpectedly, slipped from his grip, fell on his foot, and amputated two of his toes.

Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes strict vicarious liability on the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes harm to another. Under this doctrine, an owner who entrusts another to operate the motor vehicle has an obligation to ensure that the vehicle is operated safely. There is an exception to the doctrine, where the person entrusted with the vehicle injures another while both persons are using the vehicle. If this exception applies, the vehicle’s owner cannot be held vicariously liable for the negligent operation of the vehicle. The exception applies when the individuals are “jointly operating and controlling the movement of the vehicle with common purpose and community interest of enterprise, with equal right to control and direct the conduct of each other.”

Here, the court found that while the facts from the case may have established that both the plaintiff and the defendant acted with common purpose and community interest of loading and unloading the loader from the trailer and cleaning up debris from the job site, this was not enough. More specifically, the court found that there were no facts in the record establishing the plaintiff’s joint operation and control of the loader and no facts establishing the plaintiff’s equal right to control and direct the defendant’s operation of the loader. Ultimately, this case exemplifies the complex nature of applying various laws to a particular case, given that courts may interpret the law a certain way. Because of the complexity of the law, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney to discuss the details of a possible claim.

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