Florida Court Holds That Co-Owners Of A Vehicle Are Liable For Each Other’s Negligence

Earlier this year, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals addressed the question as to liability of a co-owner of a vehicle for injuries caused by the negligent driving of the car’s other owner. In Ortiz v. Regalado, Andy Ortiz (“Andy”) was driving a car which he co-owned with his father when he collided with the vehicle of Lourdes Falcon, killing Ms. Falcon’s daughter who was a passenger.

Ms. Falcon filed a lawsuit, claiming that Andy was negligent in causing the accident and that his father was vicariously liable for Andy’s negligence as joint owner of the vehicle. As this blog has discussed before, vicarious liability, or respondeat superior, is a legal theory under which the superior, in this case Andy’s father, is held liable for the acts of his or her subordinate, in this case Andy.

After a trial, a jury found that Andy and Ms. Falcon were each 50% at fault for the accident and awarded Ms. Falcon a judgment for approximately $1.4 million in damages. Under Florida’s comparative negligence law, each party to an accident is held proportionately liable for damages resulting from his or her negligence. Accordingly, the court ordered Andy and his father jointly liable to pay half of the $1.4 million judgment.

On appeal, Andy’s father argued that he was not involved in the accident and should not be held liable merely because he was a co-owner of the vehicle. Andy’s father contended that he was entitled to a reduction in the damages under section 324.021(9)(b)(3) of the Florida Statutes, which sets a limit on damages for which an owner of a vehicle is responsible when the owner loans the vehicle to another whose negligent operation of the vehicle results in damages to another.

In rejecting this argument, the Court recognized that, although the law limits damages for the owner of a vehicle when the owner loans the vehicle to another, in this case, Andy’s father did not loan the car to Andy, rather Andy was lawfully driving the vehicle as its joint owner. The Court opined that, “An owner of an object can only loan that object to another who has no legal right to the object,” concluding that because the language of 324.021(9)(b)(3) is clear and unambiguous, the Court was required to give it its plain and obvious meaning.

Although the Court rejected the argument of Andy’s father, it acknowledged that the term “loans,” was not defined in the statute. Accordingly, the Court further held that, “[b]ecause vicarious liability is of major concern to the citizens of Florida” it was necessary to certify a question to the Florida Supreme Court as to whether the damages limit under 324.021(9)(b)(3) should apply to vehicle co-owners.

Given the fact that thousands of vehicles on Florida’s roadways are co-owned, the Ortiz decision, as well as any subsequent decision by the Florida Supreme Court, is of particular importance to both plaintiffs and defendants alike.

The Miami personal injury attorneys of Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. have extensive experience representing individuals who have been injured in car accidents. If you or someone you know has been injured by the negligence of another, contact the attorneys of Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today.

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