Florida Vehicle Ownership – Vicarious Liability May Apply To You

A Florida man who signed over his uninsured vehicle to a car salesman will be held liable for damages caused when that salesman, driving the car for his own personal use, caused a fatal crash.

The decision by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals in Youngblood v. Villanueva once again underscores that in Florida, per the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, vehicle owners bear significant responsibility when they entrust their automobiles to third parties.

It’s the second time the case has come before the appellate court, following a review by the Florida Supreme Court in which justices determined the appellate court was proper in its refusal to create another exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in this case.

The common law concept holds that if you entrust an inherently dangerous tool to another person, you can be held liable for any injuries caused by that tool’s operation. Florida is unique in that, since the 1920 ruling of Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, a motor vehicle falls under the umbrella of “inherently dangerous tool.” That means strict vicarious liability may be imposed on the vehicle owner when he or she entrusts that vehicle to a person who in turn negligently operates it and causes injury or death.

The Youngblood case arises from a 2002 fatal crash. In November 2002, a divorce settlement granted a man ownership of a Lexus that was titled in his ex-wife’s name. Two weeks later, that man took the vehicle to an auto sales store and consigned it for sale. He gave no time limit on when the sale had to take place. He simply told the salesman that he “never wanted to see it again.” The vehicle was not insured, and there were no discussion between the owner and the salesman about how the vehicle could or would be used while it was on consignment.

The seller would later say he assumed it would be taken for test drives by prospective buyers, but he never expressly limited the vehicle’s use for this purpose. He did not expect to regain possession of the vehicle, but instead expected to receive proceeds from the eventual sale.

A few weeks later, the salesman took the vehicle from the lot and drove it home. He then visited several friends, left to purchase beer, and drove to his sister’s home for a Christmas party. On his way to the party, the salesman crashed. The other driver was killed.

Following the accident, the estate of the victim sued not only the driver, but the owner of the vehicle, as well as the ex-wife, whose name was still on the title. The estate sought summary judgment on the basis of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

The defendant owner countered that the “shop” exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine applied. Alternatively, he offered argued the theft or conversion exception.

Initially, the trial court granted the owner’s request for summary judgment, though no specific legal reason was provided.

The estate appealed.

The appellate court ruled in 2006 that none of the exceptions to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine were applicable and further, no new exception was established. That decision was reviewed by the state supreme court, which affirmed. The case was remanded back to trial, where a jury verdict allowed for $9,000 in economic damages and $190,000 in non-economic damages to the victim’s widow. Some $78,000 in pretrial settlements with other defendants was applied, and the trial court capped the widow’s non-economic damages at $100,000.

Both sides appealed – the defense on the verdict, and the plaintiff on the amount of damages awarded. The appellate court responded by affirming the verdict against the defense, ruling that the jury was correct in finding no grounds for theft or conversion. However, the appellate court found the trial court erred in applying a non-economic damages cap in this case.

This case illustrates the broad responsibilities owed by vehicle owners in Florida.

If you have been the victim of a Miami traffic accident, contact the Law Offices of Jose M. Francisco.


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