It’s The Law
Name on Car Title Creates Liability
I heard there was a recent case in which an ex-husband was liable for injuries caused by his ex-wife driving a car that was still in his name. How can that be?
Florida law includes the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which was inherited as part of the common law from England. That doctrine governs master and servant relationships. Under common law, a master was liable for his servant’s negligence when the master placed the servant in control of a dangerous instrumentality. A dangerous instrumentality is something which is dangerous only in use and operation.
The doctrine of dangerous instrumentality makes the owner liable for injuries caused by misuse or negligence in using the item. An item is a dangerous instrumentality if, in ordinary course of events, operation would cause injury to another if proper precautions are not taken.
Florida court cases have confirmed a number of items are dangerous instrumentalities. Those items include a 16,000 lb. forklift, cranes used at construction sites, guns, airplanes, motorcycles and motor vehicles. By statute, all boats are dangerous instrumentalities.
Court decisions have carved out some exceptions to liability in this area. Under the “shop rule,” the owner is not liable when a vehicle has been entrusted to a repair shop for repair. That exception also extends to valet parking. But, one case held the exception does not apply when an employee of the repair shop is driving the car from a pick-up point to the repair shop. The trailer portion of a tractor trailer is not a dangerous instrumentality.
Car rental and car leasing companies are not liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. However, the person leasing or renting the car is liable if he or she allows someone else to drive and the other person causes injury. If the person driving intentionally uses the vehicle to cause injury, that intentional act severs liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
If you sell a motor vehicle and the buyer hurts someone before formally changing the title, you are off the hook. Although title with DMV may not have changed, ownership of the vehicle was transferred at the time the sale was concluded. That is not the case when you get divorced and your spouse keeps the car, and you just don’t get around to transferring title. That was made painfully known to the ex-husband in the recent case of Christensen v. Bowen.
In Christensen, the husband paid for a car and arranged for title in husband and wife name, even though they were involved in a divorce case at the time. The parties did not live together. The Certificate of Title was mailed to the wife’s address. Christensen did not have a key to the vehicle, did not use the vehicle or have access to where the vehicle was kept, but he was on the title as co-owner and did not change that. Approximately 22 months after the vehicle was purchased, Taylor- Christensen, struck and killed Thomas Brown. The personal representative of Thomas Brown’s estate sued both Taylor- Christensen and Christensen.
The case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court. Christensen presented evidence that he did not use the vehicle, was not in a position to use the vehicle, and that he had intended to gift the vehicle to Taylor- Christensen when it was purchased. The court ruled that was insufficient as a matter of law to rebut the legal principle that Christensen was a beneficial owner and he was therefore liable for the injuries to Thomas Brown.
These cases make it clear that letting someone use a car titled in your name is dangerous. Before you do, get a lot of insurance and a good attorney.
By: William G. Morris, Esquire
William G. Morris is an attorney with offices at 247 North Collier Boulevard on Marco Island, Florida. His practice covers a broad range of subjects, including civil litigation, real estate, business and corporate law, estate planning and probate, domestic relations and contracts. He writes this column periodically with respect to legal matters that frequently affect non-lawyers. The information contained in this column is not intended as legal advice and, of necessity, is generalized. For questions about specific circumstances, the reader should consult a qualified attorney.
Questions for this column can be sent to: William G. Morris, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax, (239) 642-0722 or
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