August 2014 Article:

August 24, 2014 by on

Christensen v. Bowen, 39 Fla. L. Weekly S214 (Fla. April 10, 2014)

May a person whose name is on the Certificate of Title of a vehicle as co-owner avoid vicarious liability under an exception to the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine by asserting that he never intended to be the owner of the vehicle and further claiming that he relinquished control to a co-owner of the vehicle?

The Supreme Court of Florida answered this Certified Question from the Fifth District Court of Appeal in the negative and held that a person whose name is on the certificate of title as co-owner is a beneficial owner with the right to control the vehicle.

Despite being in dissolution of marriage proceedings with his wife, a man bought a vehicle and he and his wife (they were still legally married) both signed the application for certificate of title, under penalty of perjury, to have the title issued to them jointly as owner and co-owner.  The certificate of title was then issued in the name of both the husband and the wife, but mailed to the wife’s address.  Although the man did not have a key to the vehicle, nor did he use the vehicle or reside with the co-owner, or have access to her garage where the vehicle was kept, the title to the vehicle was in his name as co-owner.

His co-owner ex-wife killed someone in an accident 22 months later, and the ex-husband was sued as the owner.  He contended he was not vicariously liable, and that his intent was to purchase the vehicle as a gift for his wife and to have no other involvement with the vehicle after it was purchased.  The Fifth District held the man was liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine because he retained an identifiable property interest in the vehicle by having his name placed on the title as co-owner.  The court found that the man’s subjective intent was insufficient to defeat vicarious liability.  It did, though, certify the question as one of great public importance.

There is a limited exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in cases where the title owner lacks beneficial ownership.  Under this “bare legal title” exception, a titleholder may avoid vicarious liability if the titleholder demonstrates that he or she does not have the authority to exert any dominion or control over the vehicle, and is not a beneficial owner of it.

In this case, the ex-husband was a joint title owner with joint tenancy interest in the vehicle, and had the right to possess and use the vehicle.  Both the ex-wife and ex-husband each had a statutorily conferred legal right in the vehicle, and enjoyed a right of survivorship.  Additionally, both could encumber or sell the vehicle since their names were separated by the word “or” on the Certificate of Title.  Each of those rights put both the ex-husband and ex-wife in a joint titleholder position with authority or control over the vehicle.

Additionally, the ex-husband’s assertion that he never subjectively intended to be a titleholder was irrelevant to the beneficial ownership of a vehicle.  The only evidence presented by the ex-husband to establish he no longer owned the vehicle was he did not use it, was not in a position to use it because he did not live with the co-owner, could not access the garage where it was kept, and subjectively intended to gift the vehicle to his ex-wife when he purchased it. However, the nonuse of the vehicle did not demonstrate that he transferred his interest or that he was not the beneficial owner, according to the Court.  Because he was indisputably in a position to exercise dominion and control over the vehicle, he was found a beneficial owner and liable for the death caused by his ex-wife’s operation of the vehicle.