The Florida Supreme Court in the case of Christensen v. Bowen recently decided that then owner of a jointly titled vehicle could be held vicariously liable – even though it was undisputed that the owner had not used, possessed or exerted any actual control over the vehicle since its purchase.
Vicarious liability – also known as respondeat superior – is the legal principle that holds that an individual or company can be held responsible for the negligent actions of a subordinate or any third party where the defendant had the right, ability or duty to control.
Here, the court found that the owner of the vehicle could be held liable for a crash simply by virtue of the fact that his name was on the title.
According to court records, in 2003, a husband purchased a vehicle for his wife, and the certificate of title was placed in both of their names, and they were both listed as co-owners.
Fast-forward a few years. That couple had divorced. However, the husband never took his name off the title of that vehicle.
There was no dispute that he had no access to the car. He didn’t have a key. He never drove it. He didn’t reside with his wife and he didn’t have access to the garage where the car was kept.
Still, he was listed as a co-owner.
The now-ex-wife was involved in a fatal crash, resulting in the death of the other driver. The victim’s widow filed a negligence lawsuit against not only the ex-wife, but also against the ex-husband for vicarious liability as co-owner of the vehicle.
At trial, jurors were instructed that a person could be held vicariously liable if he or she had both the title and beneficial ownership of the vehicle. On this basis, the jury found that the ex-husband was not liable.
However, the appellate court reversed,f finding that the ex-husband did have a property interest in the vehicle as a co-owner, even if he didn’t exert any actual control over it. His argument that he had intended the car as a gift to his then-wife held no sway with the appellate court.
The state high court then affirmed the ruling of the appellate court.
The case could have significant consequences regarding insurance for titled owners like this ex-husband who don’t have possession of a vehicle. Most auto insurance policies cover crashes involving “covered autos” or “insured autos.” That means that the policies don’t include cars that the policyholder owns but doesn’t pay to insure. Likely, the ex-husband in this case didn’t pay for insurance on his ex-wife’s vehicle – he probably didn’t even consider it because he never drove it.
So even though the court has now found that he can be held vicariously liable, his insurance probably won’t cover the verdict against him. He also may not be able to seek coverage from his ex-wife’s insurance, as he probably would not qualify as an insured person on her policy.
That would mean that the individual could be made to pay the expenses ordered in the wrongful death case out-of-pocket.
Call the car accident lawyers at Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Christensen v. Bowen, April 10, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
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