Attorney David I. Fuchs
May. 12, 2014
Car Accident Law
In a recent car accident case in Florida, the state Supreme Court ruled that joint owners of a vehicle share liability in the event of an accident, even if the one owner is not directly involved in an accident, attorneys in Florida report. This case highlighted the importance of ownership, rather than driver’s actions, in determining who should be responsible when only one of the two owners is involved in a fatal accident.
In the case before the state Supreme Court, a divorced couple brought the issue to court to determine who is responsible for negligent driving, after both parties were sued by the estate of a man who was struck and killed in a collision with the ex-wife, who was driving the couple’s shared vehicle at the time. Her ex-husband claimed that he should not be held responsible for the actions of his wife, even though he is part-owner of the car she was driving.
In their ruling, the state Supreme Court applied the Florida doctrine of dangerous instrumentality, which states that the owner of a vehicle can be held vicariously responsible for any negligent actions that may occur when another driver is using the car with the owner’s permission. Even though the owner is not directly involved in the negligent actions that led to the accident, he or she is still responsible for the vehicle itself, and the actions of the person whom he or she allowed to drive. As such, the owner can be found liable in tort for injuries sustained or even the death of an accident victim.
The doctrine does have a widely-recognized exception—that of “beneficial ownership”—which allows owners to avoid liability in very few circumstances, if the owner has entered into a conditional sales agreement, or has a common law sale, but has yet to transfer the legal title of the vehicle. In this case, the ex-husband tried to use this exception to avoid liability, claiming that the car had been purchased during the couple’s divorce process. He paid the purchase price, and both parties signed as co-owners. The husband did not have a key, nor did he have access to his ex-wife’s home, where the vehicle was stored, but his name was on the title at the time of the accident.
Despite these conditions, the state Supreme Court still ruled that the husband did not qualify for the exception. The narrow allowances of the exception do not exempt him from responsibility, as the actual use of the vehicle is insufficient to prove that he did not have beneficial ownership. Car accident lawyers in Florida say that this ruling has established the joint ownership tenancy that continues to hold an ex-partner responsible, even if the owners are separated and do not share usage.
Joint ownership of a vehicle can be tricky in Florida, especially after an accident involving only one owner. If you have been injured in an accident, and need clarification on who is responsible for the collision, and who can be held liable for damages and medical bills, contact David I. Fuchs, a personal injury attorney in Fort Lauderdale, today for a free, no-strings consultation.