You may not think of your car as your greatest liability, but it can be.
If you own a car, chances are you will lend it out from time to time. And if you have teenagers, it’s a given that they will be driving the family car.
So, if you own a car and live in Florida, you need to know about Florida’s “dangerous instrumentality doctrine.”
Because lending out your car to friends or family exposes you to the greatest and potentially most expensive personal liability possible.
In Florida, if the person driving your car (assuming you own it) gets into an accident, you will be held strictly liable for the damages he or she causes.
That means you pay even though you did nothing wrong. Here’s what you need to know about Florida’s “dangerous instrumentality doctrine.”
Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine
In 1920, the Florida courts applied a very old tort law concept—the idea that certain activities are a “source of extraordinary risk” so that, even if a person himself is not negligent, if he or she exposes his fellow man to such extraordinary risk, he can be held responsible for any harm caused—to automobiles. The court held that cars are as deadly, if not more deadly, than railroad cars or street cars and held that they should be considered to be “deadly instrumentalities.”
When it comes to cars, unlike other states, Florida’s liability law is quite strict. In Florida, the owner of a car has a “nondelegable duty” to ensure that it is operated safely. If an owner voluntarily lends his or her car to another and that car is later involved in an accident, the car owner can be held strictly liable for the damages. In other words, it does not matter that the car owner himself was not driving the car. If he voluntarily lent it to another, and that person got into an accident which caused damage, the car owner can be held liable. There are some limited exceptions to the rule, of course, and there are certain liability limits, however, Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine is no joke.
Florida’s strict vicarious liability means that a plaintiff (i.e., injured victim) does not have to prove that the owner of the vehicle negligently entrusted it to the at-fault driver for liability to attach. The only thing the plaintiff must show is some fault on the part of the operator of the car. If he can do that, then the driver’s negligence will be imputed to the owner and the car owner will be held vicariously liable for the accident.
But what if the owner was in some way negligent for entrusting the car to the driver?
…There is The Potential Negligent Entrustment Cause of Action
If an injured plaintiff can show that the owner of the car was negligent in some way for lending it to the driver involved and that the accident was foreseeable, he may be able to state a cause of action for “negligent entrustment” against the owner.
If a cause of action for “negligent entrustment” can be made out, there are no limits to the amount the car owner can be held liable for.
Got Kids and a Car?
Minors under the age of 18 cannot drive in Florida unless they have a written consent signed by a parent or other responsible adult agreeing to be “jointly and severally liable with the minor” for any damage caused by the minor’s negligent driving.
And no, it does not matter whether you own the car or not.
If you sign the application, you will be held vicariously liable for the minor’s negligence.
But here’s the good news.
That liability exposure will end when the child reaches the age of majority.
The plaintiff can make out a cause of action for “negligent entrustment.”
Then, as noted above, you can be held vicariously liable for the child’s negligent driving
…there may be no limits to your liability exposure.
Personal liability can deplete your current assets and what you are able to leave behind to support your loved ones. So if you own a vehicle, and especially if you are a parent, think carefully before you lend your car to someone.
Not all laws that affect your estate are obvious ones. Contact an experienced estate and probate lawyer to make sure you know how to protect your assets and your loved ones.
Estate Planning attorney Samantha J. Fitzgerald
Estate planning is more than just property division. It provides protection for your loved ones and peace of mind for you. At SJF Law Group, we work hard to ensure that your wishes will be followed, and your loved ones taken care of when you are gone. When you work with the estate planning attorneys at SJF Law Group, you get more than just an estate plan: you get peace of mind. Let us answer your questions about the dangerous instrumentality doctrine or other questions you have about estate planning and protecting your assets. Connect with us on Facebook or Instagram or email us at: [email protected] today.