Did you know that if you own a car, truck, or motorcycle in Florida and decide one day to hand the keys to a friend, employee, or even your own child, you are legally responsible for whatever injury the driver causes–even if you are not in the car at the time? This is called the doctrine of dangerous instrumentality, and it is based on ancient common law in England recognizing that careless drivers of cars and trucks are capable of causing carnage, and often vehicle owners have more adequate financial resources than the actual drivers.
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Of course, this law applies to private owners, not rental car companies or lessors of vehicles. Florida has an entirely different set of laws that allow those corporate giants essentially to escape responsibility when a driver of one of their vehicles injures or kills somebody. I recently wrote about this unfair law in my blog for the Huffington Post: “Why Florida’s Governor Wants Tourists to Rent Cars.”
The tragic deaths of Lickson Gabriel and his passenger Luis Valentin illustrate how Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine should work. The accident happened in the early hours of the morning when Lickson, driving his father’s car, ran a red light and hit a semi-tractor trailer truck. Wanda Roman, the mother of Luis Valentin, sued the Personal Representative of Lickson Gabriel’s Estate as well as Lickson’s father, Lesore Gabriel, under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, as the car’s owner.
She settled her claim against Lesore for $10,000 and a document known as a release. That specific release discharged Lesore Gabriel of any responsibility, along with his insurance company, and any agents or employees of Mr. Gabriel. When Ms. Romon attempted to continue her claim against the Lickson Estate, the Estate raised the defense of a release, claiming that the son was an agent of the father and therefore released by the same release. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.
Mrs. Roman successfully appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in Orange County, and the decision distinguished Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine regarding a vehicle owner’s legal responsibility as separate from that of the agency. Principal and agent relationships are most commonly found in employment and commercial relationships and are distinct from those of a father lending his son a car. In other words, simply because the driver of the car was the owner’s son, he was not necessarily the father’s agent.
In Florida to prove an actual agency relationship there must be:
1. Acknowledgment from the principal that the agent is acting g on his behalf;
2. Acceptance by the agent to undertake the act;
3. Control of the principal over the agent’s actions.
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal, ordering that the Estate will have to prove that the agency relationship exists to take advantage of the release that was signed. You can read the opinion in Wanda I. Roman v. Sean Bogle as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Lickson Gabriel, Deceased.
I believe this decision is significant because it serves to remind all Florida car, truck, and motorcycle owners to be very careful whenever they let others drive their vehicles–because under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, all vehicle owners are responsible for injury or death caused by the carelessness of the driver.
Florida’s business owners, are also exposed to legal liability: If an employee or intern acting on behalf of their company, causes an injury or death, they have separate legal responsibility under the application of the agency principle.
Every year 500,000 tractor trailers and semis are involved in trucking accidents across the United States resulting in approximately 5,000 fatalities. Investigating a tractor trailer trucking accident is very different from a typical Miami car crash claim. Therefore, it is very important that your attorney is experienced in litigating truck accidents. I invite you to contact our law firm for a free consultation regarding your potential claim.