Conflicting Vicarious Liability Laws Between States

Car Accidents

In the case of Ward v. Morlock (Fla. 5th DCA Case Number 5D16-1641), the Fifth DCA held that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in Florida should apply to a car accident between Florida residents in South Carolina.

Facts Of The Case

Mr. Morlock (A Florida resident) was on vacation in South Carolina with his brother-in-law, Mr. Behrens (a Pennsylvania resident).  The accident happened when Mr. Behrens (while driving Mr. Morlock’s vehicle) struck the rear end of Ms. Ward’s vehicle.  Ms. Ward also happened to be a Florida resident.

The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Morlock because South Carolina does not follow the “dangerous instrumentality” doctrine.  Therefore, as merely the owner of the vehicle, Mr. Morlock could not be held legally responsible for this accident because Mr. Behrens caused the accident.

Why Does Florida Law Apply To A South Carolina Accident?

The general rule regarding a choice of law (or conflict of law) is that the lex loci delicti rule applies.  This means that the substantive law of the state where the injury occurred generally applies to a personal injury case.  However, the Florida Supreme Court (Bishop v. Fla. Specialty Paint Co., 389 So. 2d 999, 1001 (Fla. 1980)) adopted a “significant relationship test” with the purpose of providing at least some flexibility to a conflict of law situation.

If the general rule is followed, then Mr. Morlock has legal liability for any damage that his vehicle does in the State of Florida (because the car is registered in Florida) while he is not legally responsible for damage caused by a permissive user in states where there is no dangerous instrumentality doctrine.  It seems that the Court likely would have accepted this result but for the fact that Ms. Ward also happened to be a Florida resident.

The Court held that, under the circumstances of this case, Florida had the most significant relationship to the occurrence because:

  1. Mr. Morlock was a Florida resident and registered and insured his vehicle in Florida
  2. Ms. Ward was a Florida resident
  3. Mr. Behrens was not a party to the lawsuit and was a Pennsylvania resident

Therefore, the Courot must have felt that keeping this case out of federal court (you would have diversity jurisdiction if Mr. Behrens had been sued and likely venue in South Carolina if Mr. Behrens filed a “forum non-conviens” in Florida) was a good idea so that Ms. Ward could achieve justice on her case.  Likewise, the result would have been different if Ms. Ward (the plaintiff) had not been a Florida resident and instead had been a resident of some other state.

First Hand Experience

I once had a case where a client was injured in an accident in North Carolina by a friend (who was also a Florida resident).  In that particular case, North Carolina did not consider golf carts to be a “dangerous instrumentality” whereas Florida clearly does consider golf carts to be a “dangerous instrumentality.”  The defense never raised conflict of law as an issue in the case.  However, for the reasons iterated in this case, the fact that North Carolina law does not recognize a golf cart to be a “dangerous instrumentality” should not matter if the dispute is between two Florida residents.  It is also interesting to mention that my client was told by another attorney that he would need to get an attorney in North Carolina in order to sue.

Contact A Lakeland Car Accident Attorney About Your Case

If you have been injured in a Lakeland car accident, you should contact a car accident attorney in Lakeland, Florida for help with your case.  The issues in a lawsuit are seldom simple and the insurance company knows it.  The insurance company has a team of lawyers working for them.  You should have someone familiar with the legal issues presented in your case working for you.  Call today for a free consultation.

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