In Florida, if someone else gets in a car accident while driving a vehicle that you own, you may be vicariously liable for any damages incurred by those injured. As the Fifth District Court of Appeal explains in Bowen v. Taylor-Christensen, however, vicarious liability under these circumstances can be imposed only where the “owner” has a beneficial interest in the car.
Thomas Bowen was struck by a car and killed while changing a tire on his car alongside a highway. Bowen’s wife, Mary Jo, filed suit against Mary Taylor-Christensen, who was allegedly driving drunk when the accident occurred. Bowen also sued Robert Christensen, Taylor-Christensen’s ex-husband, whose name was on the title of the car along with Taylor-Christensen’s. Following trial, a jury ruled that Christensen was not liable under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine because he did not own the car at the time of the accident.
On appeal, the Fifth District ruled that the trial court properly denied Bowen’s motion for directed verdict in her favor on the claim against Christensen. Specifically, the court found that Christensen did not own the car at the time of the accident because he had gifted it to Taylor-Christensen.
Liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine – which imposes liability on the owner of an instrumentality that is “peculiarly dangerous in its operation” for injuries caused by the instrumentality’s negligent operation by anyone who uses it with the owner’s consent – is typically imposed based on legal title, the court explained. Nevertheless, “a narrow exception for the legal title owner to escape vicarious liability has been recognized where the holder of `mere naked title’ is able to demonstrate the absence of beneficial ownership of the vehicle,” the court noted.
In this case, Christensen testified that after the couple divorced in 2003 he attempted to reconcile the relationship, in part by buying Taylor-Christensen the car. He stated that the car was intended as a gift for her and that he never drove it after taking the vehicle to a car wash the day after he bought it. “In the ensuing two years, he never had access to the car, never had any authority over the car, never had a key, never insured it, and never had it registered,” according to the court.
As a result, the court concluded that Christensen did not have beneficial ownership of the car. Instead, he relinquished any interest in the car by gifting it to his ex-wife. “Intent to make a gift, plus delivery, equals a completed gift,” the court ruled. His failure to remove his name from the car title after making the gift did not mean that he retained any interest in the vehicle, according to the Court. “At the end of the day, he only had title and mere title is not enough to make him liable.”
The South Florida car accident attorneys at Anidjar & Levine work hard to zealously represent our clients throughout the region, including in Pompano Beach, Coral Springs and Boca Raton. Anidjar & Levine’s lawyers commonly represent individuals who were injured in car accidents and persevere to get the best possible results for our clients.
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