Bowen v. Taylor-Christensen, 98 So. 3d 136 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012), reh’g denied (Oct. 2, 2012)
This case is out of Brevard County, Florida involving a claim for wrongful death. On February 21, 2005 Mary Taylor-Christensen was driving drunk when she struck and killed plaintiff’s husband. Both Mary Taylor-Christensen, and her ex-husband, Robert Christensen, the car’s co-owner were named in the lawsuit. In Florida, the title holder of the car involved can be held liable to victims of auto accidents under the ‘Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine’.
At trial Robert testified that he was separated from Ms. Taylor-Christensen in April of 1999 and that she moved away. In April 2003, after divorce proceedings concluded but before final judgment was entered Robert attempted to reconcile with Ms. Taylor-Christensen and in the process they bought together the vehicle at issue. Robert and Ms. Christensen signed a number of documents connected in the purchase which identified both of them as co-owners. Robert claimed that he signed the documents to purchase the car for Ms. Taylor-Christensen and that he only saw the car twice after that. The trial court jury decided that Robert was not the owner of the car at the time of the accident.
Under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine the Florida Legislature imposed limited liability on “owners” who permit the use of their vehicles. The owner who permits someone to use their motor vehicle shall be liable for the operation of the vehicle or the acts of the driver in connection with the vehicle. Florida statute defines the owner as a person who holds legal title. Plain application of the statute would clearly indicate Robert as the owner but a limited except that allowed title holders to escape liability if he executed a common law sale with clear intent of both parties to make an immediate transfer of the beneficial ownership of the vehicle to the buyer and nothing can exist to reflect a contrary intent.
The court reasoned that for this exception to apply to this situation, Robert must have material evidence to prove that he gifted all his interest to his ex-wife. Gifts are only valid when the gift giver clearly intends to give the gift, delivery, and intent of the gift giver to release from himself all dominion and control over the gift. To determine the intent the focus will be on the giver’s words when giving the gift. In this case Robert had stated he had bought the car for his ex-wife to drive. The court decided that this statement was not good enough to contradict the documents naming him as a title holder and that this type of statement was legally immaterial to defeat vicarious liability by the title holder. Vicarious liability in cases such as these comes from an identifiable property interest in the vehicle which is based on the right to control the vehicle and not its actual usage. Robert allowed the use of the car and although the use of it was exclusive to her alone it did not undo his legal co-owner status. The court concluded 3 legal propositions of this case, in which the defendant either could not do or failed to do:
- As a matter of law, when the owner’s name is on the title when the car is purchased he cannot merely claim that he did not intend on being the owner.
- As a matter of law, one must take action to divest himself to avoid liability
- As a matter of law, releasing possession of and having to do with the car after purchase is not enough to release him of his legal interest.
The important point to take away from this case is that liability is can reach out and touch those who are completely unaware of that possibility. An act as innocent as lending an automobile to a friend or family member can expose you to liability for their harmful acts. Likewise if you have been injured by another it is important to be aware of the persons that you can hold liable for your injury to attain adequate recovery.
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If you have lost a loved one and feel it was due to another party’s negligence, then you need to contact the accident attorneys of Madalon Law. A wrongful death attorney will gladly go over your case with you at no cost. We are based out of Fort Lauderdale and handle accident cases throughout the state of Florida. If you cannot make it to us, we will come to you. Contact us for your free consultation.