You would lend your car to a neighbor who needed to drive to a doctor’s appointment or to a friend who has to go to a job interview, right? Well, it is a nice gesture, but, under Florida tort law, you are responsible for any damage or injury they cause while operating your vehicle.
The dangerous instrumentality doctrine “imposes strict vicarious liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes damage to another.”
Does your neighbor rear-end another driver? Your friend runs a red light and collides with a car? You are legally responsible, just as if you had been driving the vehicle yourself. (And your neighbor/friend is also liable for injuries and damages).
As with any law, there are exceptions to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Let’s take a look at them.
Exceptions to the Rule
Strict vicarious liability does not apply in the following circumstances:
- When your vehicle is in the shop. When your car is getting serviced or repaired, you entrust it to the garage. Say, then, that a mechanic takes your vehicle out for a test drive and causes an accident. You are not liable for the negligent operation of the service station employee.
- When you use valet parking. Similar to the “shop rule,” you are not liable for negligent driving on the part of a valet.
- If your vehicle is stolen. The dangerous instrumentality doctrine assigns liability to owners who willingly lend their car to another driver. If your car is stolen, you have obviously not given your consent or permission. You are not responsible for any accidents causes by the thief or subsequent drivers.
- If you sell your vehicle. When you sell your vehicle, you must change ownership on the title. If the new owner causes an accident before you have had a “reasonable” opportunity to do this, you may not be held liable. This can be a sticky one: what is “reasonable”? If the new owner causes on an accident on the way home from purchasing the car or purchased it on a Friday afternoon and has an accident on Saturday (when DMVs are closed) you had no realistic chance to change ownership. If, however, it’s a week later, it is far more likely that you will be held responsible.
- Car rental or leasing companies. What happens if you cause an accident while using a rental or lease vehicle (with a lease term of one year or less)? The title is in the company’s name – so are they liable? No. The driver is responsible for his or her own negligent driving, according to the Florida Supreme Court case of Vargas v. Enterprise. A car rental or lease company may be held liable, however, if they were negligent in some way. If they failed to maintain the vehicle, for example, they are not “off the hook” in terms of responsibility.
A “Plaintiff-Friendly” State
The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is closely related to negligent entrustment. The latter tort law holds owners of “dangerous instrumentalities” – or inherently dangerous tools, such as guns – liable if they entrust that property to a third party, and the third party causes injury and/or damage.
Most states enforce negligent entrustment laws; Florida, however, takes it a step further. With negligent entrustment, the plaintiff must prove that the owner was negligent or did not exercise “reasonable” care when lending the property to a third party. With strict vicarious liability, the plaintiff does not need to prove fault. All they need to do is prove that the third party’s actions were negligent.
Let’s look at an example: say that a man lets his friend borrow his car. The friend has a few DUIs on his record and has more than a few speeding tickets; he causes an accident. Under negligent entrustment law, that owner is liable because he was negligent in lending the car to someone with a history of poor driving behavior. This holds true in many states, as in Florida.
Now, let’s say the man lets his mother drive his car. She has a spotless driving record but causes an accident. In most other states, the man is not liable for negligent entrustment.
In Florida, however, he may be held responsible. Even though there was no negligence on the part of the owner, the simple fact that he lent his car to a third party is enough to meet the bar for strict vicarious liability.
This makes Florida a more “plaintiff-friendly” state compared to others. However, there is a cap on compensation. Owners are liable up to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident for bodily injury and up to $50,000 for property damage.
If you have been injured by a third party’s negligence, contact an experienced attorney immediately. It is possible to seek compensation for your injuries from the owner of the vehicle. The LaBovick Law Group team will investigate your situation and develop a well-researched case to ensure your rights are protected.