You May be Vicariously Liable for Damages If Your Name is on a Car Title – Christensen v. Bowen

In Christensen v. Bowen, the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that an individual whose name is on the title of a vehicle may be vicariously liable for damages even if he or she did not use or operate the vehicle. Vicarious liability, also known as respondeat superior, is the legal principle that imposes liability on an individual or a company for the negligent acts of an employee. Put another way, it is holding an individual or company liable for the actions of a third party that the individual or company had the right, ability or duty to control.  For example, a truck driver’s employer may be vicariously liable if the driver negligently causes an accident.

Here, Mr. Christensen bought Mrs. Christensen a car while on the verge of divorce. The vehicle was titled in both of their names. As part of the divorce, Mrs. Christensen kept the car, but Mr. Christensen’s name remained on the title. A few years later, Mrs. Christensen negligently caused a serious car accident that killed the driver of the other car. The victim’s family brought a wrongful death suit against both Mr. Christensen and her.

At trial, there was no dispute that Mr. Christensen did not maintain any control over the car at the time of the accident. He did not have a key to the car, he did not drive the car, and he had no access to the car, since he and his wife had begun living separately after the divorce. However, his name was still on the title, thus making him a co-owner of the vehicle.

At trial, the jury was instructed that a person could be vicariously liable for damages if he or she retained title and beneficial ownership of the vehicle. Based on these instructions, the jury found Mr. Christensen was not liable.

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision on the basis that Mr. Christensen still maintained a property interest in the vehicle due to the fact that his name was still on the title. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed. The Court held that, regardless of actual use, a person whose name is on the title of a vehicle is vicariously responsible for that vehicle’s use.

The decision creates three important consequences. First, it creates insurance issues for titled vehicle owners who don’t actually exercise control of the automobile. The decision also encourages vehicle owners to be vigilant about keeping titles accurate and up to date. Finally, it gives Florida victims more options in terms of who they might pursue in a personal injury lawsuit.

The insurance consequence is perhaps the most important. Under this ruling, an individual who fails to remove his or her name from a title of a vehicle may be liable for damages on a vehicle for which he or she has no insurance coverage. This means that the individual would have to pay for any expenses and damages out of pocket. Here, it is unlikely that Mr. Christensen had insurance on his ex-wife’s vehicle, for he did not possess or use the car.

If you’ve been in a car wreck, it is important to consult an experienced attorney who is well versed on the recent law changes. Florida personal injury lawyer Robert Dixon is a hardworking attorney who can help assess the merits of your case. If you think the recent Florida Supreme Court decision may impact your case, contact us online or call us today at 1-877-499-HURT (4878) for a free, confidential consultation.

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