Under Florida law, the owner of a vehicle can generally be held vicariously liable for the negligent actions of a permissive driver pursuant to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. This doctrine helps ensure that accident victims have a source of recovery for their injuries when the negligent driver is not vehicle’s owner. By allowing another to take custody of the vehicle, the owner commits himself or herself to the permissive driver’s judgment and accepts liability for the driver’s actions.
There is, however, a “beneficial ownership” exception to the doctrine. An owner who lacks the beneficial ownership of the vehicle and does not have the authority to exert dominion or control over it will not be held liable. This exception has been applied very narrowly, specifically in circumstances where the owner has entered a conditional sales agreement or has completed a common law sale but failed to transfer legal title.
In a case recently decided by the Florida Supreme Court, a former husband attempted to use the exception to avoid liability for the negligence of his former wife in driving a vehicle the two co-owned. In Christensen v. Bowen, both the former wife and husband were sued by the estate of a man who was killed after being hit by the vehicle.