Employer Liability for Rental Car Accident in Florida

In a recent case the Florida plaintiffs were injured in a car accident involving a rental car. The rental car was paid for by the employer Bell Partners and authorized for its employee to drive for business purposes. However, at the time of the accident it was driven by the employee’s husband.

The plaintiffs sued the employer under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. It claimed that the employer was vicariously liable for authorizing and paying for the driver’s wife to rent the vehicle. The employer denied liability. It argued that it had not agreed to the employee’s husband driving the rental car and that its policy prohibited unauthorized drivers or personal use of company rental cars.

Both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The driver’s wife frequently traveled for her employer who owned several senior living communities in multiple states.

The employer would either reimburse the driver for mileage or pay for a rental vehicle. The driver’s wife typically rented cars from Hertz. The driver’s wife didn’t buy additional insurance from Hertz because at the company’s orientation she was not told to do so.

The driver’s wife was never told she could use the rental car for anything other than driving to and from work. The rental car was supposed to be used for work and work related purposes, but her supervisor had not objected to her husband driving them to a funeral of another employee or to another site when she had to work on the way.

In this case, the woman had rented a vehicle using the company credit card so she could drive to Port Charlotte. She had listed both herself and her husband as authorized drivers of the rental car. Her husband was driving when they got into an accident. She told the supervisor of the accident the following day and asked him to write a letter to state the rental car was for business purposes. She was not reprimanded for letting her husband drive the car.

The employer had a written travel policy issued in 2009. It stated that the rental cars could be rented for business use, but could not use the car for personal use and under no circumstances could an employee permit a spouse to drive the car.

The employer filed a supplemental memo three days before the summary judgment hearing. It argued it didn’t have an identifiable property interest in the subject vehicle and didn’t control the car.

The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment finding it undisputed that the employer hadn’t owned, leased, or rented the car. The plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs asserted that the employers were vicariously liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which makes a car owner liable for voluntarily entrusting that car to another individual whose negligent operation of the car caused damage to another. The employer alleged that driving of the rental vehicle without the prior consent of the employer was a kind of theft.

The appellate court explained that whether the employer was vicariously liabl required a fact based inquiry about its status as a “bailee.” The jury could accept the written policy of the employer as to non-work related use of rental cars or it might accept testimony about prior instances where the supervisor was fine with the husband driving rental cars paid by the employer.

The employer’s motion for summary judgment had asserted only it had not granted consent and the husband’s unauthorized use was a conversion to use the car for non-business purposes. The argument related to being a bailor or bailee had been introduced for the first time only a few days before the hearing date. As such, it was noncompliant with the rules related to summary judgment. The appellate court reversed, ruling the employer’s status was a jury issue.

If you have been hurt due to another person or entity’s negligence, contact the experienced Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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