While most people understand that the driver of a car can be held liable for a crash that they caused, they might not know that the owner of the car can be held liable as well in some cases. But in many cases, even a joint owner listed on the title but not involved directly in the case can be held partially liable for the crash.
In a car accident case in Florida, the Florida 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 a driver’s actions, in determining who should be responsible when only one of the two owners is involved in a fatal accident.
For a free car accident case review, call the Boca Raton car accident attorneys at The Law Offices of David I. Fuchs, Injury & Accident Lawyer, P.A. Our number is (954) 866-1750.
Florida Supreme Court Case on Holding Joint Owners of a Car Liable for Injuries
In the case before the Florida 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.
“Dangerous Instrumentality” Rules
In their ruling, the Florida 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.
Ruling in This Case
Despite these conditions, the Florida 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. Fort Lauderdale 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.
When Can Joint Owners of a Vehicle Be Held Liable for a Car Crash
As established in the case discussed above, the “dangerous instrumentality” argument can apply in many different cases – potentially against multiple co-owners. Here are some examples of when this might come up:
Drunk Driving Accidents
After too many drinks at a bar, a patron might give their keys to a friend to drive them home. However, if the friend that offered to drive them was also too drunk to drive safely, the car’s owner could be held liable for putting a drunk person behind the wheel of their car. In a case like this where a drunk driver hits you and injures you, these rules could allow you to sue the passenger – the owner of the car – for your injuries. It could also allow you to sue a joint owner of that vehicle (e.g., their spouse) as well.
Parents often let their young drivers use their cars rather than buying them their own car. If a parent loans a car to their child, and that child should not have been given access to a car because they were too dangerous on the road, the parent could be held liable. In addition, any joint owners, such as the other parent, could be held liable.
Many parents also buy their children cars and title the cars jointly in the child’s name and the parent’s name. Even if the child is grown up and out of the house, the parent could potentially still be held liable as a joint owner of the vehicle. This means that if the young driver does not have the money to pay for the injuries they caused you in a car crash, our Miami car accident lawyers could potentially file an injury lawsuit against the parent/co-owner to fill out the rest of the damages you are owed in your injury case.
Many trucks used by trucking companies are owned by the trucking company. If a trucker who works for them caused your injuries in a car accident, our Florida car accident lawyers might have a few routes to seek compensation from them.
As the driver’s employer, the trucking company could be liable for any negligence the driver caused while on duty. Even if they were not on duty or the car crash fell outside the driver’s job duties (e.g., by driving drunk or driving the truck after hours), the trucking company could still be held liable, in part, as the owner of the vehicle.
If the trucking company holds the vehicle title jointly with another company, an individual investor, or another driving partner, they could also potentially be on the hook for damages under this case’s ruling.
Rented vehicles are typically owned by the car rental company – or potentially by multiple companies that distribute these cars to various rental companies. In cases where the rental company gives a car to a driver that they should have known was dangerous behind the wheel, they could be sued for partial responsibility in causing the crash, along with any other joint owners.
How Damages Are Paid in Florida Car Accident Lawsuits Against Joint Owners
Ultimately the process of getting damages paid in a case involving joint owners of the vehicle could be rather complex. It is important to understand the many sources of damages that could be involved in your injury case.
The At-Fault Driver
If you are suing a driver for injuries in your car accident case, they could be individually responsible for the injuries they caused. Just because the owner of the car is involved in the suit does not necessarily mean that the driver is absolved of any direct wrongdoing behind the wheel of the car. As such, you could be entitled to a share of damages from that driver directly.
When suing joint owners for their share of negligence in causing a crash, you can typically only hold them liable for the share of negligence that was their fault. Car owners might not be liable for the entirety of the damages.
Courts might place limits on the share of damages all owners will collectively pay, attributing only the share of damages that can be linked back to the owners’ specific wrongdoing. As joint owners, the owners might share those damages equally, allowing either one (or both) of them to be the one who actually pays you. This is a complex legal question and often results in different outcomes based on different facts, so you should have our Deerfield Beach car accident lawyers help you determine who pays what share of damages.
As a driver in Florida, you are required to have PIP insurance that will cover a portion of your own medical expenses and lost wages after a car accident. You are typically required to use this insurance first after an accident, covering some of your needs before you even go after another party for damages. Our Florida car accident attorneys can help you determine what coverage you are entitled to and what additional damages should be claimed against these various at-fault parties.
A Commercial Driver’s Employer
As mentioned, some truck drivers – as well as other commercial drivers – are performing a job when they are driving. This means that any negligence committed during their job duties could be attributed to their employer instead of them. This could potentially add another at-fault party, further complicating your case.
Contact an Accident Attorney About Your Joint Ownership Accident in Florida
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 liable for damages and medical bills, contact the Florida car accident lawyers at The Law Offices of David I. Fuchs, Injury & Accident Lawyer, P.A. today at (954) 866-1750 for a free case review.