In most cases, vehicle co-signers are not held liable for an auto accident that occurs when they are not behind the wheel. However, there are some circumstances where Florida drivers should tread lightly when co-signing on an automobile loan. In cases where the Florida driver is simply a co-signer and never obtains the vehicle’s title, the driver will not likely face any lawsuits. However, in situations where the driver was a co-owner of the vehicle and currently has their name on the title, the driver can be held liable under the doctrine of vicarious liability. In Florida, whenever someone co-signs on a loan obligation, he or she may be considered “vicariously liable” for damages resulting from the accident when the other person on the loan causes an accident. This doctrine has led to situations where co-owners of vehicles were sued on charges such as wrongful death and serious injury, even though they were not involved in the accident.
This issue was dealt with extensively in the case of Bowen v. Taylor-Christensen. The case dealt with a tragic death of Thomas Bowen, who was hit and killed by a car driven by Mary Taylor-Christensen, while Bowen was changing a tire on his car off the side of a highway. Bowen’s widow, Mary Jo, filed a law suit against Taylor-Christensen, who was said to have been drunk driving at the time the accident happened. Bowen also added Taylor-Christensen’s ex-husband, Robert Christensen, whose name was also on the car’s title alongside his ex-wife’s name. The trial court denied Bowen’s request for a directed verdict to hold Christensen liable under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine, stating that he did not own the car at the time of the accident, so he was therefore not liable.
The dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes liability on the owner of an instrumentality that is known to be “peculiarly dangerous in its operation” for injuries caused by someone operating the instrumentality in a negligent manner, if that person is using the instrumentality, such as a car, with the consent of the owner. If someone co-signs on a car or lends someone his or her car to drive, the co-owner of the car or owner of the car can be held liable for an accident caused by the person driving the vehicle. An exception does exist if person who is holder of title can demonstrate that he or she does not have “beneficial ownership” of the vehicle.
The Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court ruling that Christensen was not liable for the accident despite the fact that he was still on the car’s title. The Appeals Court argued that the vicarious liability doctrine only extends when the co-signer has a “beneficial interest” in the car. Christensen had argued that he bought the car for his ex-wife in an effort to reconcile prior to their divorce, stating he never drove it other than taking it off the lot the day he purchased it, and he never had access to the car in the two years before the accident. The trial and appeals court agreed and ruled that this meant there was no beneficial interest. Even though Christensen never took his name off the title of the car, the courts still argued that he did not have interest or ownership of the vehicle.
Bowen appealed, and nine years later, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that he did, in fact, have beneficial interest or ownership of the vehicle, ordering him to pay damages for his part of the accident.
The moral of the story is, by co-signing on a vehicle, the co-signer is opening himself or herself up to the possibility of being responsible for the damages caused by the person driving the car with the co-signer’s permission. Before signing on the dotted line, it helps to know the consequences of what can come with that responsibility, and it may mean more than just being financially responsible for the loan.
FREE CONSULTATION WITH A MIAMI AUTO ACCIDENT PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY
If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident in Florida, it is very important to consult with an experienced Miami auto accident attorney immediately. Florida auto accident victims have only 14 days to seek initial medical attention to receive insurance benefits after an accident, so it is important you are seen by a doctor as soon as possible following the accident. Spencer Aronfeld is a Board Certified Trial Lawyer, and he and the lawyers at Aronfeld Trial Lawyers understand Florida’s complex personal injury laws and since 1991 we have fought hard to protect the legal rights of the injured and their families- and hold auto insurers like State Farm, Allstate, Progressive, GEICO and others accountable for the pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and other damages suffered by our clients. Contact us today and speak with an experienced Miami auto accident attorney toll free 1-866-597-4529, local 305-441-0440, or by email. We offer a free initial consultation at your home, office, hotel or hospital. Call us today, we are ready to help.