Question: One of my friends keeps borrowing my car because his is always breaking down. Am I liable if he hurts someone?
Answer: A motor vehicle is considered a dangerous instrumentality. In Florida, the owner of a motor vehicle who allows someone else to use the vehicle has a legal obligation to insure that the vehicle is safely operated. If the person borrowing the vehicle damages property or causes personal injury with the vehicle, the owner is as liable as the operator.
An injured person must not only prove ownership, but also that the vehicle was operated with the knowledge and consent of the owner. Sometimes, that can be difficult to prove. In other cases, it is proven by circumstances.
In the case of Conklin v. Carroll, an employer authorized use of a truck by an employee, but the use was only to be for business purposes. The employee hit a car while on a personal errand during non-work hours. The court referenced Florida's Supreme Court decision holding that only a breach of custody amounting to a conversion or theft will relieve an owner of responsibility for its use or misuse. It held that restrictions on uses between the parties were unrelated to liability imposed on the owner of the motor vehicle.
In some cases, even theft is not enough to get the owner off the hook. In Thomas v. Atlantic Associates, Atlantic Associates allowed Henry Roberts to use a car it owned. While Roberts was out of town on a trip, he left the keys on his dresser. His 13 year old daughter took the keys, drove the car and caused an accident. The trial court held the daughter had stolen the vehicle and the owner was relieved of liability. The Appellate Court reversed and returned for trial. It held that even if a car is stolen as a result of the owner's negligence in allowing access to the keys, if the theft was foreseeable, the owner may be responsible for damage caused by the thief.
Knowledge and consent can also be proven by past actions. Where the owner of a vehicle has previously allowed it to be used and use at time of injury is consistent with past use, implied consent may be found by the court. In short, it is almost impossible to avoid liability when an individual lets someone else use his or her car.
On the other hand, there are some protections in situations when owners do not have liability. Federal law exempts car rental companies from liability for damage caused by operators of leased or rented vehicles through no fault of the rental company.
Florida courts have carved out an exception for vehicles in repair shops for repairs. If the owner has no knowledge of or control over the operation of the vehicle during that time, the owner is not liable to third persons for injuries caused by negligent operation of the vehicle by the repairmen.
Florida also relieves owners from liability where they have sold a vehicle but retained legal title, provided the title has been endorsed to the buyer or is on its way to the state for reissuance. And, it appears that if the person in possession intentionally uses the dangerous instrumentality as a weapon to inflict personal injury, the owner is not liable.
Motor vehicles are not the only dangerous instrumentalities in Florida. Florida courts have held certain items to be dangerous instrumentalities per se, such as automobiles driven on highways, an airplane in operation, an operated motorcycle and boats. In addition, dangerous instrumentalities can be items which place life and limb in peril when negligently constructed. Those are known as dangerous instrumentalities in fact. Florida's Supreme Court refused to extend the dangerous instrumentality to a manufacturer of lawn chairs where a person sustained a partial amputation of a finger when he sat in a display chair.
One last area of liability will be of particular interest to parents. Under Section 322.09(2) of Florida Statutes, a person who has signed the application for a driver's license of a minor is liable for any damages caused by the negligence or willful misconduct of the minor while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway.
The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is unknown to many. It should give you pause before loaning your car to a friend. It should make you investigate your insurance coverage; to be sure you are covered if your friend causes damage. Ultimately, it may lead you to your attorney's office. With respect to a dangerous instrumentality, you might not shy away from borrowing, but I recommend that you not a lender be.
By: William G. Morris, Esquire