Can a Florida Co-Owner of a Car Avoid Vicarious Liability for an Accident?

In a recent case, the Florida Supreme Court answered a certified question on the question of whether a co-owner of a car could avoid vicarious liability by claiming he didn’t intend to be owner of the vehicle and had relinquished control to a co-owner. Robert Christensen paid for a Chrysler PT Cruiser in 2003, putting the title in both his wife’s name and his own name. Both signed the application under penalty of perjury to have the title paperwork list them as co-owners. They were in the process of divorcing.

The husband didn’t receive the certificate of title because it went to his wife. He did not have a key or use the vehicle, nor did he live with his wife, though title was in his name. About 22 months later, the wife negligently hit and killed a man while driving the car. The title was still in the name of both husband and wife as co-owners. The car was operated with the husband’s consent.

After the accident, the decedent’s wife Mary Jo Bowen sued for wrongful death against both Christensen and his wife. The plaintiff claimed that Christensen was vicariously liable for his wife’s negligent operation of the vehicle under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Christensen argued that he wasn’t vicariously liable. He later testified he had bought the car as a gift for his wife and wasn’t involved with the car after purchase.

At trial the plaintiff asked the court for a directed verdict as to ownership. The court denied the motion. The jury was instructed that a car owner is somebody with title and also has beneficial ownership with the right to control and use the car. The plaintiff appealed with regard to the lower court’s denial on her motion for directed verdict. The district court reversed, finding Christensen liable because he kept an identifiable property interest in a car where he was listed as co-owner. The district court certified to the Florida Supreme Court a question about vicarious liability and co-ownership.

The Florida Supreme Court explained that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine ensures that those injured because of negligent operation of a car are able to get financial recourse. It imposes strict vicarious liability on those with identifiable ownership interests in a car. The policy behind this is that someone who grants custody of a car to someone else commits himself to that other’s person’s driving judgment.

The exception referenced by Christensen is those cases where a titleholder doesn’t have “beneficial ownership.” In cases where a titleholder doesn’t have any authority to control the vehicle is not a beneficial owner. This exception is narrow and applies only if a titleholder holds title under a conditional sales agreement or sold the car and transferred possession.

The Court held that a joint titleholder who hasn’t released himself from an ownership interest is an owner of the car. Someone who maintains a joint interest in a car has the right to possess and use the car whether he exercises it or not.

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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