Who Is Liable: Car Owner or Driver?
After a car accident, the question of liability will not come into play unless the damages surpass the amount of personal injury protection (PIP) insurance of the injured party. When liability does become an issue, one common question arises: who is liable, the car owner or the driver?
To many, it would seem that the driver would be the sole person liable for the accident, given that they caused the crash. However, in Florida, a rule known as the “Dangerous Instrumentality” doctrine says otherwise.
According to this legal theory, any person who owns an inherently dangerous item can be held liable for any injuries caused by the use of that item.
Under Florida law, a car is an inherently dangerous item. Therefore, a person who owns a vehicle can be held liable for the acts of a driver who causes injury or damage to their vehicle, along with the driver themselves. A car accident lawyer can help you complete the legal formalities.
It is common for married couples and others to own their assets jointly. However, in the case of vehicles, joint ownership is seen as a bad idea by many car accident attorneys.
With the aid of a car accident attorney, accident victims can pursue compensation from both owners and get a significantly higher payout than if there were only one owner on the title.
Exceptions to the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine
As with many legal theories and laws, there are some exceptions to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
First, if you own a car and someone steals it, the doctrine will not apply if they cause injury or damage. Another instance where the doctrine does not apply is in the case of car rentals. A rental company that owns a vehicle will not be held liable for the acts of a driver who causes a wreck.
Another exception applies when the bailee becomes injured. A bailee is a person to whom the owner entrusts their vehicle. If the bailee crashes and hurts themselves, they cannot bring a claim against the car’s owner. The same holds true for a sub-bailee, a second person who is given permission to drive the car by the bailee.
Other notable exceptions to this rule include valets and other similar types of workers who park cars and mechanics and auto shop workers who may test drive a car for functionality.
Examples of the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine in Action
John lends his car to Jack. Jack negligently drives his car into another car and causes injuries and property damage. According to the doctrine, John would be on the hook for damages not covered by PIP insurance.
John and Jenny own a vehicle jointly and loan it to Jack, who negligently causes an injury accident with damages surpassing the victim’s PIP insurance coverage. John and Jenny are on the hook for the damages not covered by PIP.
John lends his car to Jack, who gets injured in a car crash due to his own negligence. Jack may not sue John for damages not covered by his PIP insurance.
John lends his car to Jack, who subsequently lends the car to Jane. Following a crash, Jane becomes injured. She may not make a claim against John for her damages not covered by PIP insurance.
John’s car is stolen, and the driver negligently causes a crash. The victim cannot go after John for the damages that supersede their PIP coverage.
Damages a Car Owner May Face Under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine
Both the owner and the driver can be held liable for a slew of economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are payments intended to offset the impact of an accident victim’s financial hardship, including but not limited to:
- Expenses and costs for medical treatment
- Lost income and loss of ability to work
- Costs to hire homecare workers
- Costs related to damage to or loss of property
- Funeral and burial costs and related expenses
- Reimbursement for travel costs related to medical treatment
Non-economic damages, though not financial in nature, also exact a great financial cost from liable parties.
They can include:
- Pain and suffering
- Permanent disability and disfigurement
- Emotional distress
- Mental anguish
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of enjoyment of life
Sometimes, punitive damages may be awarded in these cases if the victim’s car accident attorney also sues for negligent entrustment.
Limitations of Liability for Car Owners
A car owner whose negligent bailee or sub-bailee causes an accident may be held liable for damages not covered by PIP, but there is a limit to this liability imposed by law.
Florida Statute 324.021(9)(b)3 holds that the vehicle’s owner in dangerous instrumentality cases cannot be held liable for bodily injury for more than $100,000 per person and not more than $300,000 per accident. Regarding property damage, the cap is $50,000.
If the vehicle operator does not have insurance (or possesses insurance under $500,000 for combined property damage and bodily injury), the owner will be on the hook for an additional $500,000 for those damages that arise solely out of the operation of the vehicle.
In most cases, an owner’s liability insurance will be sufficient to cover claims brought against them. However, if an owner of a vehicle does not possess liability insurance, they may be held personally liable for the accident.
When a car accident attorney sues a vehicle owner, many of their assets will be on the line, but not all of them.
Under Florida law, certain assets cannot be touched in a car accident lawsuit, including:
- Your Florida homestead
- Retirement funds
- Life insurance
- Disability insurance
- Head-of-household wages
However, other assets, such as bank accounts, vehicles, and business assets, can satisfy a car accident judgment.
Consider Legal Help
The issue of liability in car accidents is tricky in Florida. If you have been involved in an accident and are wondering who can be held liable, your best bet is to connect to the personal injury attorney in Tampa for clear answers and assistance with your case.