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Florida has very specific laws dealing with the legal responsibilities of rental car companies and car renters when their rented vehicles are driven by people other than the renters specified on the agreements. Our Miami car accident lawyers have long advised people never to drive a rental car for which they have not been specifically listed on the contract as a driver–and never to allow another person to drive a vehicle they have rented unless that person is noted on the rental agreement.   

 

Recently a Broward County jury was asked to decide whether or not Hertz, the rental car company, and Delana Wynn, who rented a car from Hertz, would be legally responsible for an accident caused by Nathaniel Phillips, who happened upon her keys while visiting her house, took the car, and caused a serious accident.(( CLYDE STOKES, LARCESTA STOKES, CANESHA STOKES and CALEB STOKES, Appellants, v. DELANA WYNN, THE HERTZ CORPORATION and NATHANIEL PHILLIPS, Appellees. 4th District. Case No. 4D15-0873. June 7, 2017. Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Marina Garcia-Wood, Judge; L.T. Case No. 11-016314CACE18. ))  

The evidence in the case file reveals that Ms. Wynn was living in a home with 10 other people who shared some familiar relationship and almost all of whom had parked various vehicles at the house. While her car was in the shop for an extended period, Ms. Wynn rented a car from Hertz. The members of the household would commonly place all the keys in a bowl in the kitchen to make it easier for people to move other cars in an out of the driveway.   

One day, Mr. Philips, the boyfriend of one of the household’s residents, came across her Hertz keys–which identified the vehicle in question because of the Hertz key fob–and took the car, causing a serious accident when he hit a motorcycle driven by a Mr. Stokes. At the time, Mr. Philips did not hold a valid Florida driver’s license.

The evidence in the case further suggests that Mrs. Wynn had not given Mr. Phillips her permission to take the car. Following the accident, Mr. Phillips ran from the scene. When finally apprehended, he acknowledged that two grams of crack cocaine had been found in the car, but denied that it belonged to him.

Mr. Stokes filed a Florida personal injury lawsuit against Mr. Phillips, Ms. Wynn, and Hertz. The complaint alleged that Ms. Wynn was liable for Mr. Phillips’s negligence in causing the car-motorcycle accident because Mr. Phillips was driving the car with consent, or alternatively that she was negligent in making the car keys available to Mr. Phillips.

As to Hertz, the personal injury complaint alleged negligence because it had attached a Hertz key fob to the car keys given to Ms. Wynn, which identified the keys as belonging to a rental car.

The case proceeded to a jury trial, where the judge instructed the jury on the law of express and implied consent to address the issue of whether Mr. Phillips had consent or permission to use the car. The question for the jury as to Ms. Wynn was whether she had implicitly consented to the operation of the Hertz rental car; if so, she would therefore be legally responsible for any negligence caused by Mr. Phillips at the time of the collision. Of course, she denied consenting and alleged that he had stolen the car.

RENTER’S RESPONSIBILITY FOR A CAR ACCIDENT IN FLORIDA CAUSED BY AN UNAUTHORIZED DRIVER  

Under Florida law, anyone who rents a motor vehicle and consents to another’s use of it is responsible for its operation. Four factors contribute to this determination:

1) The driver’s prior use of the vehicle.

2) The location and accessibility of the keys.

3) The existence of a familial relationship between the owner and the driver.

4) The conduct of the parties after the accident.

In this case the jury returned a verdict and answered “No” to the question, “Was Nathaniel Phillips operating the motor vehicle with the express or implied consent of Delana Wynn at the time of the collision,” likkewise finding no negligence on the part of Hertz. In other words, Mr. Phillips was 100% responsible for the accident. This likely would mean there was no insurance coverage and therefore no monetary recovery possible for the victims.  

Not surprisingly, the Stokes legal team appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred in giving the jury instruction that exonerated Ms. Wynn if Mr. Phillips’s use of the vehicle exceeded the scope of any implied consent. They asserted that one of the theories of liability against Ms. Wynn was that she had impliedly consented to Phillips’s use of the rental car by leaving her keys in the kitchen, even though she denied this. That concept, if true, would make Ms. Wynn liable for his use of the vehicle.

Under Florida law, however, the liability of a car owner for the negligence of a driver who is not the renter of the vehicle is determined on the basis of whether there has been, in fact, a theft of the vehicle prior to the negligence at issue, meaning that once the vehicle has been “stolen,” there is no “consent,” and the vehicle is no longer on public highways “by authority of” the owner.((Susco Car Rental System of Florida v. Leonard, 112 So. 2d 832 (Fla. 1959).))

In this case, the evidence supported the conclusion that Ms. Wynn did not give Mr. Phillips permission to drive the vehicle–even though Ms. Wynn testified that she kept the keys to the vehicle in her room, and although Mr. Phillips said he obtained the keys from the kitchen counter. Therefore, the appellate court upheld the verdict in favor of Ms. Wynn and Hertz.

I agree with the result; that is, Ms. Wynn and Hertz should not have been held responsible for the theft of a car she rented. However, I feel great sympathy for the plaintiffs, who will walk away with no compensation for their injuries and damages. Given that the car in question was a commercial vehicle, I think Hertz should bear some responsibility since they put a dangerous instrumentality–a car–out in the public, knowing it can be used without permission and can cause death and injuries. This is the point that bothers me: If the vehicle were a privately-owned car that had been stolen by Mr. Phillips, then I could certainly agree that the owners should bear no liability. That is not the case here. This is a commercial vehicle, and its sole purpose of existence is to make money for its corporate owner; under these circumstances, I believe the commercial owner bears a higher duty of care and responsibility to innocent victims who may be injured or killed by its vehicles.

Hiring an Attorney For a Rental Car Accident in Florida

If you have been injured in a car, truck, or motorcycle accident, or as a pedestrian in the State of Florida, it is important to consult with an experienced car accident lawyer. Our Miami personal injury law firm has been representing injured victims since 1991, and we have fought hard to protect the rights of those injured in car accidents across the state of Florida, from Jacksonville to Key West.   

Call us today–toll-free at 1-866-597-4529, locally at 305-441-0440, or reach us by email at [email protected] or SKYPE–to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney. We have investigated thousands of cases and know how to help you hold insurance companies accountable for your lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering.  Call us today–we are ready to help.