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Florida Car Owners: Major Liability Regardless of Fault

Like most people, you have probably loaned your car to a neighbor or friend on occasion without giving it much thought.  Or perhaps you have a minor child that just turned 16 that you allow to drive the family car.  Or maybe you plan to buy your minor child a car?  Did you know that in Florida just being listed on the title of a car subjects you to liability for an accident?

Florida’s “Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine” establishes a law that holds the owner of a motor vehicle strictly liable for any injuries caused by permissive use of such motor vehicle.  Whether you are driving the car or present in the car at the time of the accident is irrelevant.  All that matters for liability to exist is that the car is titled in your name and that you gave permission to the operator to use the car.

Permission can be express or implied.  Express permission means you specifically authorized someone to use your vehicle on a particular occasion.  Implied permission means you routinely give someone access to your vehicle.  For example, if you leave your keys in a common place in your home and roommates or relatives frequently borrow your car, implied consent will be found to exist.  Keep in mind that the doctrine applies to all types of vehicles, not just cars and trucks.  Boats, golf carts, and motorcycles are also considered dangerous instrumentalities under the doctrine.

Parents should also be mindful of the liability imposed by signing a driver’s license application for a minor child.  Section 322.09(2), Florida Statutes, states that any negligence or willful misconduct by a minor in the operation of a motor vehicle shall be imputed to the person who has signed the application, and the parent that signs the application will be held jointly and severally liable for any and all damages caused by the minor child.

So, what can you do to protect yourself?  

Start by reviewing your vehicle’s title to see who is subject to potential liability under the doctrine.  You can add or remove names from a vehicle’s title by visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Don’t put more than one name on a car title unless necessary.  Under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, only persons whose names are listed on the car’s title are liable for injuries caused by the negligent operation of the vehicle.  So, if there is only one person listed on the title, then only that person (along with the actual driver whose negligence caused the accident) can be held liable for its use.  In most situations, it makes sense to put the title of a vehicle in only the primary driver’s name.  Small changes to your car title now might help you avoid big liability exposure in the future.

Finally, be cautious about who you let borrow your car.  If you doubt the ability of someone to safely operate your car, then don’t let them use it.  If your teenage child is not experienced enough or mature enough to handle the responsibility of driving, then do not make your car or keys accessible.  Your car = your liability.  Protect yourself.

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