Do Rental Car Companies in Florida Have a Duty to Investigate?

What happens if a rental car company rents a car to a driver who proves to drive negligent and hurts or kills someone? In a recent appellate case, a man was killed in Florida while riding in a 2008 Corvette that was rented from Hertz and driven by the defendant. A witness saw the defendant hit another vehicle after swerving through traffic at a high speed. When Hertz rented the man the car, it did not know that his driver’s license had been suspended after he received a speeding ticket in another state.

The man’s representative filed a wrongful death action against Hertz, alleging that it was negligent in not affirmatively investigating and learning of the suspended driver’s license pursuant to a statute. The trial court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the Florida Statutes required Hertz to inspect the license to verify the signature and nothing more.

The man’s representative amended the complaint alleging general negligence rather than a statutory violation. However, the representative still wanted to use the statutory violation as evidence of proximate causation. In a general negligence action, a plaintiff must show (1) a duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) actual causation, (4) proximate causation and (5) damages. “Proximate causation” means “legal cause.” Something may be part of a chain of events that leads to an accident, but still not be the “legal cause” or “proximate cause” of an accident.

In this case, the trial court rejected the representative’s argument as “bootstrapping” onto the statutory section. The representative appealed. The appellate court examined whether there was any duty on Hertz’s part to investigate the status of the defendant’s driver’s license.

First, the appellate court referenced the Graves Amendment (49 U.S.C. § 30106) is a federal statute that does not permit vicarious liability of rental car companies based on their customers’ negligent driving. The court explained that if there wasn’t negligence or wrongdoing, an owner would not be liable simply because he held the title to the vehicle. Next the court reasoned that Hertz only owed a duty of care beyond what was imposed under the Florida Statutes if it knew or should have known why trusting the defendant driver with the car was foolish or negligent.

In this case, the plaintiff had not claimed that Hertz failed to perform its statutory duty to compare signatures, the court looked at whether Hertz knew or should have known of the suspension. The plaintiff had relied on an Arizona appellate court case in which the company renting the car had actual knowledge the defendant did not have a valid driver’s license. However, the plaintiff had not stated facts to show that Hertz knew of the defendant’s unfitness as a driver.

The appellate court reasoned that if there were no facts to show that Hertz knew of the deficiency in the defendant’s driver’s license, Hertz had no duty to investigate and learn of the defendant’s suspension. The amended complaint did not include any facts to show that Hertz had a duty to investigate.

On the issue of proximate causation, the court found that the suspension itself did not make a driver incompetent to drive. The accident would have happened even if the defendant had a valid license at the time he rented the car. Therefore Hertz’s failure to investigate was not the proximate cause of the accident.

If a loved one is killed as a result of somebody else’s negligence, contact the experienced Florida wrongful death attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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