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Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

“Adopted in 1920, Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes strict vicarious liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes damage to another.” Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So. 2d 60, 62 (Fla. 2000). According to the Florida Supreme Court, the doctrine is a “century-old common-law rule of tort liability, as applied to traffic accidents.” Emerson v. Lambert, 48 Fla. L. Weekly S227a (Fla. Nov. 16, 2023). It “provides that ‘[t]he owners of automobiles in this state are bound to observe statutory regulations of their use, and assume liability commensurate with the dangers to which [they] or their agents subject others in using the automobiles on the public highway[s].’” Id. (citing S. Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629, 632 (1920) (quoting Anderson v. S. Cotton Oil Co., 73 Fla. 432, 74 So. 975, 978 (1917)).

In other words, “[t]he doctrine serves to hold financially responsible those who originate the ‘dangers incident to the operation of automobiles’ by entrusting such dangerous instrumentalities to others.” Emerson, 48 Fla. L. Weekly S227a (quoting Anderson, 74 So. at 978). It “seeks to provide greater financial responsibility to pay for the carnage on our roads.” Kraemer v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 572 So. 2d 1363, 1365 (Fla. 1990).

But of course, like most issues in the law, there are exceptions to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. See section 324.021(9)(b)(1), Florida Statutes (eliminating liability for owners, who rent or lease their vehicles for one year or longer, in certain circumstances), section 324.021(9)(b)(2) (capping liability of owners, who rent or lease their vehicle for less than one year), section 324.021(9)(b)(3) (capping liability of owners who are natural persons that loan their vehicle to someone else), section 324.021(9)(c)(3)(a) (restricting liability for motor vehicle dealers and motor vehicle dealer’s leasing or rental affiliates, that provide temporary replacement vehicles to customers whose vehicles are being held for repair or service), 49 U.S.C. § 30106(a)(1) (prohibiting states from imposing liability on car rental and leasing companies, so long as they are not negligent or criminally responsible).

The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is based on two well-settled principles in the law. “An owner of a dangerous thing is strictly liable for its negligent operation, and a principal is vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of an agent.” Emerson, 48 Fla. L. Weekly S227a.

In the 1920 case that created the doctrine, the Florida Supreme Court stated:

[O]ne who authorizes and permits an instrumentality that is peculiarly dangerous in its operation to be used by another on the public highway is liable in damages for injuries to third persons caused by the negligent operation of such instrumentality on the highway by one so authorized by the owner.

S. Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 86 So. 629, 638 (Fla. 1920).

While some litigants have argued that the doctrine should apply to make non-owners liable in certain circumstances, ownership or “[l]egal title remains the most common basis for imposing vicarious liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.” Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So. 2d 60, 63 (Fla. 2000). In Aurbach, the Florida Supreme Court refused to hold a father liable for an accident caused by his daughter. Id. The father was not the owner, bailee, or lessee of the vehicle. Id. He did not give his daughter the authority to use the car, nor did he have the right to do so. Id. Rather, it was the negligent driver’s mother who owned the car and she gave her daughter permission to drive. Id. The Florida Supreme Court held “that a parent who holds neither legal title nor an identifiable property interest in a motor vehicle should not be held vicariously liable for his or her child’s negligent operation of the vehicle under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.” Id. at 66.

In November 2023, the Florida Supreme Court analyzed another case where a litigant argued that a non-owner was liable. Emerson, 48 Fla. L. Weekly S227a. In Emerson, a severely injured motorcyclist, sued a twenty-one-year-old driver and his parents under different theories of negligence. Id. The theory against the son was simple—he negligently drove the car. Id. The father, who owned the car, was negligent under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Id. And as to the mother, the plaintiff claimed she was vicariously liable as a “bailee.” Id. She had the right to use the car and gave that right to her son. Id.

Only the mother’s liability was on appeal. And ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court held that where the father did not contest liability, the dangerous instrumentality doctrine cannot be used to extend liability beyond the owner. Id. Extending the doctrine to both the owner father, and non-owner mother, “would be an improper extension of the doctrine.” Id. (internal citation omitted).

Knowing the law is the first step, but knowing how to use it best serve your clients is what can make all the difference. Emerson leaves open the possibility of expanding the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in certain cases.

If you or anyone you know needs an attorney to seek justice in an auto accident personal injury case, please call us at 754-400-5150 or contact us online, Let the Law Offices of Evan M. Rosen serve you!

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