In the case of Depriest v. Greeson (Case Number 1D16-0807), the First DCA in Florida held that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine does not apply for vicarious liability in the time before a personal representative is appointed. The estate of the deceased vehicle owner was therefore not vicariously liable for the car accident.
Facts Of The Case
The decedent in this case lived with his wife and adult child. His car and his keys were kept at his adult daughter’s house and she drove his vehicle on occasion with permission. However, there was no direct evidence that the decedent ever gave his daughter permission to use his car after he died (of course, who would think to discuss that?). The adult daughter and a stepchild were named as co-beneficiaries in the decedent’s will.
Approximately one month after the owner of the vehicle died, the decedent’s adult daughter collided with Mr. Depriest’s car after it had already been disabled by another accident. Depriest claimed damages in addition to those caused by the original accident and sued the owner of the car for vicarious liability stating that the adult daughter was negligent in causing the collision.
The trial court found at a summary judgment hearing that there was no evidence to suggest that the decedent’s adult daughter had permission to use the vehicle. The stepson named in the will had taken the vehicle’s title to a probate attorney but had not taken the keys with him because he did not realize that the car would be used by his stepsister.
My Two Cents Of Legal Commentary
It is my hope that this judicial opinion is taken up before the Florida Supreme Court and reversed. The reason why it should be reversed is because the owner of a motor vehicle in Florida is always vicariously liable for negligence unless the vehicle is stolen. As such, it is a mere technicality that there is no one to authorize a third person to use a dead person’s car until a formal personal representative is appointed.
In the case of a will contest it could be months or longer before a personal representative is actually appointed. In the meantime, the car may need to be moved or operated for a variety of perfectly valid reasons for which no heir to the deceased person would ever claim that the car was stolen. Further, the heirs of the deceased person can oftentimes agree on who is eventually going to get the car and can agree on its use even when a probate action is pending.
This case, in my opinion, only operates to unfairly prejudice a third person who is hit and injured by a deceased person’s car. As long as there is insurance on the vehicle (which is a requirement anyway just to maintain a registration regardless of whether you are living or departed), then it should not matter whether a formal personal representative has been appointed to formally give permission to use the vehicle, thereby triggering the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
Under the facts of this case, I am quite surprised at the result despite the existence of the common law “family purpose” doctrine which would imply permission to use the vehicle under the circumstances. One question that appears to be completely missing from the case is whether the stepson would have had an objection to his stepsister using the car. Even though she had her own car, I cannot see a valid reason why the car could not have been borrowed and, hence, why no legal liability would attach (again, particularly when there was insurance on the vehicle anyway).
This is a case where the court let the insurance company win. Perhaps a better result would have been that the deceased owner’s insurance company might get a coverage defense and let the driver’s insurance cover the claim instead.