Liability under Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, or “Be careful who drives your car”

July 30, 2010

Under Florida law, motor vehicles have been classified as “dangerous instrumentalities”, a legal determination which can result in significant consequences when a vehicle is involved in an accident which causes personal injuries to others. The doctrine itself is rooted in the “common law” ( or case law) and provides that if the owner of a motor vehicle voluntarily entrusts that vehicle to another person who thereafter injures a third party, the owner can be held vicariously liable for the damages which result.

The logic behind this theory is that there are some “tools” such as motor vehicles, which are deemed so potentially dangerous that public policy should not permit the owner to avoid liability if an otherwise innocent person is injured by the operation of the vehicle with the owner’s permission.

While this issue arises in my practice most often in circumstances where parents purchase a vehicle for the primary use of a child, while retaining legal ownership of the car, it can result under any number of situations were a vehicle is loaned to a third party. From the Plaintiff’s perspective, this doctrine can often provide available liability coverage when the negligent driver has little or no insurance, but the owner of the vehicle is sufficiently covered.

Under Florida law, the “owner” of a vehicle under a long-term lease is limited to the lessee (ie. the person leasing the vehicle for their own use). As such, Honda Leasing Corp. or any similar entity cannot be held liable for the damages cause by a leased vehicle, even though they may hold a security interest in the vehicle pending the satisfaction of the lease.

The bottom line is that vehicle owners must be particularly careful when permitting others to drive their vehicle and make sure they are properly covered in the event of an accident. From the injured party’s perspective, do not despair if the operator of the vehicle in uninsured or underinsured, since additrional coverage may be available. For any coverage questions or if you have been injured by a neglient driver, please contact the Heyman Law Firm for a no-cost consultation.