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Who is legally responsible for a Florida car accident caused by an individual driving the car of someone who has died–before a formal estate has been created?  Typically, when a person in Florida dies owning assets in Florida, such as a house, bank account, car, truck, or motorcycle–an estate has to be created to control the distribution of those assets–as well as satisfy the debts of the deceased.((Ultimate ownership of any asset of an estate would not be determined until after resolution and satisfaction of credit card debts, claims, taxes, debts, expenses of administration, and other financial obligations of an estate. Often assets, like cars, are sold to pay an estate’s financial obligations, and are no longer belonging to the estate or to any beneficiary.)) However, estates take time, money, and lawyers to create, so in the meantime, who bears the legal responsibility if an accident is caused by someone driving a vehicle owned by the dead person?  

This sounds improbable, but it actually is an issue that comes up with frequency–especially in Florida with its aging population.  Imagine you get a call one day that Old Aunt Bessie has passed away comfortably in her sleep at the ripe old age of 100.  In her garage in Boca del Vista is the old Cadillac that you remember her picking you and your parents up from the airport in when you would come to visit her on spring break.  When you are dragged into helping your parents clean out the apartment, someone suggests that the old Cadillac be started up, or taken to the store to pick up some ice cream for the wake, or to a used car lot to sell.  But on the way to the store, you get into or even cause an accident. Who is responsible?  She died only a few days ago, and no formal estate has been created in Probate Court, no Administrator appointed . . . heck, she has not even been buried yet.

Generally, under Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, the owner of a car, truck, or other vehicle is responsible for the damages caused by the vehicle’s use, regardless of who is behind the wheel. However, in this case the owner–Aunt Bessie–is dead. Upon her death, the car automatically became an asset of her estate, but since nobody had the legal authority to consent to your use of the car on behalf of the estate (which had not yet been formed), the estate cannot later be held responsible for the accident. This gap in time is commonly referred to in the law as “in the twinkling of a legal eye.”

If this sounds like an unfair loophole in the law–one that will allow an innocent victim go uncompensated–I agree. Unfortunately, Florida law and its First District Court of Appeal think this is just fine. In fact, in a case published this week, the 1st DCA affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a case against the Estate of Christian W. Schnitzspahn, after his daughter caused a car accident, driving his car–but before his estate could be created.((SAMUEL M. DEPRIEST and DOROTHY DEPRIEST, Appellants, v. RICHARD GREESON, as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF CHRISTIAN W. SCHNITZSPAHN, Appellee. 1st District. Case No. 1D16-0807. Opinion filed February 21, 2017. ))

The appeal arose from the Circuit Court for Walton County, Florida, where Judge Thomas R. Santurri dismissed the case in favor of the estate.  The 1st DCA found that the trial judge came to the correct conclusion in dismissing the case but was in error in how he got there.  However, the ruling is that when there is a gap in time between a decedent’s death and the appointment of a personal representative, the estate is not liable, and the court granted summary judgment in favor of the personal representative.

According to the court’s records, Christian W. Schnitzspahn and his wife lived with their adult daughter in Milton, Florida. His car and its keys were kept at his daughter’s house, and she had occasionally driven his car with his permission.  However, there was no evidence that Mr. Schnitzspahn had ever given his daughter his permission to continue to use his car once he died.  In fact, Mr. Schnitzspahn’s will did not bequeath the car to anyone; it only named his daughter and stepson as equal co-beneficiaries.  

Sadly, about a month after Mr. Schnitzspahn’s death, his daughter was driving his car and came upon the scene of a recent accident in which Samuel Depriest and his grandmother were in a car that had collided head-on with another car, killing the other driver.  She then hit Mr. Depriest’s disabled car, allegedly causing injuries to them–in addition to what they had already suffered in the first crash.

Samuel Depriest and his grandmother sued Mr. Schnitzspahn, as the car’s owner, alleging vicarious liability under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, not knowing that he had died.(( Mr. Depriest was charged with vehicular homicide as a result of this head-on collision.  The accident happened when he was driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic after midnight. The charges were dismissed for lack of proof but reinstated on appeal. State v. Depriest, 180 So. 3d 1099 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015). He was later tried and found innocent. )) They later amended their complaint, suing Mr. Schnitzspahn’s Estate and his daughter. ((The daughter was later dropped from the case))) 

Here’s where it gets even trickier: Mr. Schnitzspahn had nominated his stepson, who lived in South Carolina, to be his estate’s personal representative. As the appointed personal representative, his legal rights were different than those of the daughter. In fact, as personal representative, he would have the right to control the assets of the estate (including the car).((As authorized by the will and the law. § 733.608, Fla. Stat.))

The evidence established that when the stepson was in Florida for Mr. Schnitzspahn’s funeral, he had taken the car title to a Florida probate court–to open a probate case. The stepson never took possession of the car. Moreover, there was no evidence that there was ever a discussion between Mr. Schnitzspahn’s stepson and the daughter about using the car, nor any evidence that the stepson knew the daughter had used it. In fact, he testified that he didn’t take the keys with him because he never thought to discuss her use of the car because he never assumed she would drive it.

Four days after the accident, the Estate was filed, and 20 days after the accident, letters of administration appointing the stepson as the personal representative were issued. Not surprisingly, the car happened to be fully insured, and the insurance company totaled it, paying the proceeds of the policy into the estate, where the money was later listed as an asset. Guess who got those proceeds?

There are several valuable lessons to be learned from this case. One: If you own a car or any vehicle, it is important that you have a will–with clear instructions as to whom you wish to have appointed as your personal representative, and who can drive your car after you die but before the estate is appointed. It can make a huge difference in terms of what assets your beneficiaries may ultimately receive. Nobody wants to discuss having a will, but if you have loved ones, the best way to show them you care is by being preparing for the inevitable and protecting their assets. I think it’s easy to see that while the stepson and daughter in the Schnitzspahn case were able to protect the assets of the estate, sadly an innocent victim will go uncompensated.   

Additionally, there is an ongoing urgent need to make sure that if you own a car in Florida, you purchase adequate coverage. That begins and ends with Uninsured Motorist Coverage. This is the only insurance that will protect and pay you and your family in the event that you are involved in a car, truck, bicycle, motorcycle, or pedestrian accident caused by a driver who either doesn’t have any coverage, doesn’t have enough–or, as in this case, has the coverage but eludes payment.

If you would like to consult about preparing or updating your will, or if you have been involved in a traffic accident with serious injuries in Florida, call our Miami car accident law firm today for a free initial consultation: you can reach us at 305-441-0440, toll-free at 1-866-597-4529, by email at [email protected], or SKYPE. We have over 30 years’ combined legal experience helping accident victims get the compensation they deserve for lost wages, medical expenses, property damage, and pain and suffering.  Call us today–we are ready to help.