Interpreting Ownership and the Right of Control Under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

By Herron Bond

Today the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in Bowen v. Christensen (SC12-2078), about whether, as a matter of law, a holder of legal title who has not transferred his or her interest in a vehicle by sale or gift is liable for the negligence of the operator under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

Under the doctrine of dangerous instrumentality, Florida courts have consistently held that the owner of a vehicle operated by another can be found liable in tort for injuries resulting from the permissive user’s negligence. However, a widely-accepted exception to that rule provides that the owner must also possess a right of control and authority over the vehicle’s use in order for liability to attach. Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc., 69 So.2d 342 (Fla. 1954).

In 2005, Mary Taylor-Christensen struck and killed a fellow motorist. She was driving a vehicle purchased two years earlier by her ex-husband, Robert Christensen, who claimed that he intended to leave the vehicle in Mary’s possession permanently. The vehicle’s title and several documents signed at purchase identified both Robert and Mary as co-owners. Mary registered the vehicle at her address and kept it in a gated garage at her residence in Brevard County, 500 miles from Robert’s residence in the Panhandle. Robert did not have access to the car or garage, did not buy insurance or pay registration fees, and saw the car only once in the two years between the purchase and the collision.

The decedent’s spouse, Mary Jo Bowen, filed suit against Mary Taylor-Christensen and Robert Christensen for the wrongful death of her husband, alleging that Robert was vicariously liable under the doctrine of dangerous instrumentality. Robert argued that his lack of authority and control over the vehicle precluded liability based on dangerous instrumentality and a jury returned a verdict in his favor at trial after the judge denied the plaintiff’s motion for directed verdict. In a 5-3 decision, the Fifth District Court of Appeals (sitting en banc) reversed the lower court’s decision, finding that Robert’s property interest in the vehicle warranted a finding of liability as a matter of law.

In his initial brief to the Florida Supreme Court, the Petitioner, Robert Christensen argued that the 5th DCA incorrectly applied the dangerous instrumentality doctrine by ignoring the exception that absolves title owners of liability when they do not possess a right of control or authority over the vehicle. He claimed that the jury instruction given by the trial court, which acknowledged the “control and authority” exception, mirrored the instruction espoused by the Florida Supreme Court in the seminal dangerous instrumentality case, Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc. The trial court’s jury instruction was undisputed by Bowen on appeal.

Furthermore, Christensen argued that the 5th DCA impermissibly substituted its own judgment for the jury’s after reweighing the evidence. Christensen pointed to a number of cases in which Florida courts have decided that the question of ownership or control is a question of fact that should be left to the jury. Escobar v. Bill Currie Ford, 247 So.2d 311, 315 (Fla. 1971); Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc., 69 So.2d 342, 342 (Fla. 1954); Farrelly v. Heuacker, 159 So.24, 25 (Fla. 1935); Carlton v. Johns, 194 So.2d 670, 674 (Fla. 4th DCA 1967). He claimed that instead of relying on the jury’s proper determination, the 5th DCA reweighed evidence surrounding the purchase of the car, contravening “a basic tenet of appellate review” which prohibits the reevaluation of evidence for the purpose of supplanting a jury verdict. Castillo v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., 854 So.2d 1264, 1277 (Fla. 2003).

In her answer brief to the Court, the Respondent, Mary Jo Bowen, claimed that the facts of the case demonstrate that Robert Christensen intended to retain ownership and control over the vehicle. She stated that Christensen deliberately signed five documents in which he declared himself co-owner of the vehicle and never put forth evidence, other than his own testimony, that he intended to give the car to Mary as a gift.

Furthermore, Bowen argued that Christensen incorrectly replaced the phrase “right of control” with the idea of “actual control.” The “control” exception includes the phrase “right of control,” however, the entire premise of Christensen’s defense was that he did not actually exercise control over the vehicle. According to Bowen, the car title and other documents listing Christensen as co-owner gave him the requisite “right of control.” She also pointed to Johnson v. Deangelo, 448 So.2d 581 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984), in which the 5th DCA ruled that a title holder’s intent is “insufficient to overcome the legal presumption arising from the motor vehicle title itself” and Merel v. Robinson, 102 So.2d 385 (Fla, 1958), in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that actual use of a vehicle is irrelevant in interpreting the “control” exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

Finally, Bowen claimed that there was no question of fact relating to Christensen’s “right of control” over the vehicle, pointing to the two narrow exceptions to title owner liability recognized by Florida courts. Thus, she believed that the lower court’s jury instruction should never have been given and her motion for directed verdict should have been granted.

Oral arguments in this case can be viewed here.

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