The Florida Supreme Court adopted the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in 1920. This doctrine provides: a vehicle owner (and others that own inherently dangerous tools) may be held vicariously liable when he or she consents to let someone drive his vehicle who operates it irresponsibly and causes damages. The doctrine is similar, but separate from, the doctrine of respondeat superior, which imposes liability upon a “principal” for negligent acts of his agent that occur during the course and scope of the agent’s employment.
Parents of minors in Florida must take particular note of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. A parent who signs his or her minor’s application for a driver’s license may be held vicariously liable for the child’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
A Florida appellate court recently considered the question of whether application of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine means that a driver can be considered an agent of the car’s owner. This is less complicated than it may sound.
The question came up during a wrongful death lawsuit. A car crash killed both the driver of a vehicle and his passenger when the driver failed to stop at a red light. The passenger’s mother filed a lawsuit against the driver’s estate and the driver’s father, who owned the vehicle. The father was included in the lawsuit under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
The passenger’s mother settled with the father, executing a release that freed the father and his agents from liability for the passenger’s past and future injuries for $10,000 in cash. Meanwhile, the estate filed an answer and included affirmative defenses. The estate claimed that, because the driver was his father’s agent under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, he should also be released by the $10,000.
The passenger’s mother didn’t reply to the pleading. Subsequently, the estate filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. A motion for judgment on the pleadings is a procedural device that permits the trial court to decide a case only using the complaint and other pleadings, rather than sending the case to a jury. The estate argued that the driver was an agent of his father because he drove his father’s auto with his permission.
The trial court granted the motion in this case and entered a judgment for the driver’s estate based on the release. The passenger’s mother appealed this decision.
In the mother’s view, her lack of reply constituted an automatic denial of the answer. She argued that the driver was not named in the release because the release was not intended to apply to him. She also argued he wasn’t an agent of his father just because he was driving his father’s vehicle.
The appellate court agreed with the passenger’s mother that the trial court did not apply the proper standard and did not properly apply the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The court noted that older case law had mentioned that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine derived from the agency relationship of respondeat superior. The court explained that even if this was the case, those principles were less important today than the purpose of the doctrine. The doctrine’s purpose was to require that an owner of a car take financial responsibility for those killed on the road by a negligent driver.
In this case, the court reasoned, there was no evidence of an agency relationship between driver and owner and you could not look beyond the pleadings to ascertain whether there was such a relationship. The appellate court reversed the judgment.
Although this is a technical point of law, it can have an impact on cases involving Florida parents who allow their children to borrow or use their cars. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident due to someone else’s negligent or irresponsible behavior, contact the South Florida wrongful death attorneys of Friedman, Rodman & Frank for a consultation at 877-448-8585. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and offer free and confidential initial consultations.
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