What is the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine?Florida's Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine establishes a law which provides that the owner of an inherently dangerous tool is liable for any injuries caused by that tool's operation. While many dangerous tools may come to mind, many people do not think of a car as a tool. But in 1920, the Florida Supreme Court in Southern Cotton Oil v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 469 (Fla. 1920), extended the doctrine to include motor vehicles. The case involved a company who was sued after its company car caused an accident which injured the passenger of another vehicle. To deal with this relatively new issue during that time, the court issued the rule of law that anyone—company or person—who gives permission to another to drive their car will be held liable for any injuries to other people that vehicle causes. The doctrine imposes what is known as strict vicarious liability upon the owner of the vehicle, which essentially means the owner of the vehicle and everyone else whose name is listed on the vehicle's title is viewed as if they were in the driver's seat of the vehicle when the accident occurred. To justify this ruling, the court in Southern Cotton reasoned that automobiles are inherently dangerous, and after giving permission to drive a vehicle, the owner has both the financial and moral responsibility to ensure the car is driven responsibly.
Who Does the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Apply to?In order to hold a person vicariously liable under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, such person must have an identifiable property interest in the vehicle. The most common basis for establishing an identifiable property interest in a vehicle is identifying who is listed on the title of the vehicle. This means that the seemingly simple task of choosing whose name(s) to place as the owner of a vehicle on its Certificate of Title has substantial legal ramifications. For instance, placing a teenage driver on the title of a vehicle can open them up to the financial liability of the damage caused by the vehicle, regardless of whether they were driving or not.
Exceptions to the Dangerous Instrumentality DoctrineThe Florida courts have carved out three common exceptions to the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine with regards to vehicles:
- The "Shop Rule": under this rule, the owner of a vehicle entrusted to a service station for repairs is not responsible for the negligent driving of a repair shop employee. This exception also encompasses damage caused by a valet driver.
- Car rental and car leasing companies: when you lease a vehicle from a rental or leasing agency, the vehicle's title stays in the name of the rental or leasing company. Regardless, the rental or leasing company is not liable for your negligent use of that automobile under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine.
- Sale of your vehicle: if you sell your car and the buyer causes an accident before you have a reasonable opportunity to change ownership on the title of the vehicle, you may be able to escape responsibility under the doctrine.
- Stolen vehicle: If your car is stolen, and then involved in an accident, you cannot be held responsible under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine because no permission was granted.
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