Last month the Florida Supreme Court decided a case that can affect those of us who may share title to a car driven in Florida. The case that was decided was one that involved a car purchased by a married couple. The title of the car was registered in both of their names as co-owners. The couple was later divorced and the wife took sole possession of the car. She was the only one that had access to the car, it was kept in her garage, she had the only keys and the ex-husband never used the car. The title, however, remained in both of their names following divorce and there was never any effort for the husband to remove his name from the title of the car.
As some of you may or may not know, Florida has a law called the Dangerous Instrumentality doctrine that makes the title owner of a vehicle liable for injuries or damages caused to a third party by anyone who has the authority to drive the car. The Court noted that there are exceptions to this law such as if the car is stolen prior to the wreck or if the situation is one where the owner has “bare legal title” such as when you sign papers to purchase a car but the papers have not yet been processed by the title officials. The Court however noted in this case that the purpose of the Dangerous Instrumentality law is to saddle those in the best position to control who drives the car (the title owners) with the responsibility of only permitting those they deem as safe drivers to control the vehicle.
Even though the Husband did not have possession of the car and it was kept out of his immediate control, the Court reasoned that so long as he was title co-owner that he had the right to control and the right to access and that was enough to justify him being held responsible. Further the Court noted that there was a legal process for divesting yourself as title owner of a car and that the Husband failed to exercise that option. The Court also made note of the fact that the title was listed as “Sally or John Smith” which bestowed either with unilateral rights to the vehicle. The period of time between the titled being issued and the wreck was over 22 months.
So, the moral of this story is that if you are listed as co-owner of any Florida motor vehicle please understand that you can be held responsible for any injuries caused by any driver of that car even if you do not personally give permission to the driver. So long as the driver gets permission from any owner and an accident occurs, all persons appearing on title are potentially liable for damages.
If you have questions about this case, any car wreck case or anything questions related to the functioning of Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, please do not hesitate to contact Zarzaur Law, P.A. at 855-hirejoe or on the web at zarzaurlaw.com.