If the car really isn’t yours, make sure your name isn’t on the title.
“May a person who intentionally directs that title be issued in his name as co-owner, by completing a sworn application for title in conjunction with the purchase of a vehicle, avoid liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine by claiming that he never intended to be the owner of the vehicle and further claiming that he relinquished control to a co-owner of the vehicle?
The Florida Supreme Court said NO. Bowen v. Taylor-Christenson, So. 3d , 39 FLSW S 214 (Fla. 4-10-2014). In Bowen, a pedestrian’s estate brought a wrongful death action against the driver and owner (the driver’s ex-husband whose name was still on the car title) of the vehicle that struck and killed the pedestrian. Even though the ex-husband (1) did not have a key to the vehicle, (2) did not use the vehicle, (3) did not reside where the vehicle was garaged, (4) did not have access to the vehicle, and(5) did not possess a key to the vehicle, the ex-husband was still a co-owner of the vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court held that the ex-husband could be liable for the injuries and/or death caused by the vehicle.
Its decision was based on the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which serves to ensure financial recourse to members of the public who are injured by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle. This is a form of strict liability placed upon the owners of vehicles (example of a dangerous instrumentality). The rationale is that a vehicle owner, who has control over the use of the vehicle, exercises his or her control by granting custody of the vehicle to another. An exception had arisen in case law, prior to the Supreme Court of Florida’s decision in this case, wherein a titleholder to a vehicle could limit his liability, if he were able to show that he lacked the beneficial ownership of the vehicle and simply held “bare legal title”. The Supreme Court of Florida held that “beneficial ownership is unrelated to the physical access to a vehicle, past use of a vehicle, or intent to use or not use a vehicle. Rather, beneficial ownership arises from legal rights that allow an individual to exert some dominion and control over the use of the vehicle. Thus, because a titleholder has legal rights in the vehicle and is in a position to exert some dominion and control over the vehicle, he or she is a beneficial owner.” Id. Bowen.
Simply stated, don’t get caught in the gap. If you don’t consider yourself the owner of the vehicle, make sure your name isn’t on the title. In this situation, the ex-husband should have obtained an Order in his divorce wherein the Court directed the ownership of the car to be placed in the ex-wife’s name.
If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident and you have questions about liability (i.e. who is responsible for your injuries), contact the law firm of Brannon & Brannon. You can send us a contact form through our website www.BrannonCanHelp.com or call 850-863-5297.
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