What is the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine?
Every vehicle owner in Florida should be aware of what is known as the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine. This doctrine holds the owner of a vehicle liable for the negligent operation of the vehicle by a permissive operator. The reasoning behind this doctrine is that a vehicle is dangerous if operated improperly and the owner of that vehicle is the person in the best position to make sure it is being operated safely. For example, if you let your neighbor borrow your car and your neighbor causes an accident, you are equally at fault under the law simply because it was your car and you allowed your neighbor to use it.
How does the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Apply?
The doctrine applies to many vehicles, not just cars and trucks. Of particular interest in Florida, boats are considered dangerous instrumentalities. Other examples include farm tractors, golf carts (!), trailers, buses, motorcycles and airplanes. The doctrine applies only when the owner allows the driver to operate the vehicle ("permissive use"). Therefore, if your vehicle is being operated without your permission, the doctrine does not apply. For example, if your vehicle is stolen and subsequently involved in an accident, you are not liable under the doctrine. The permission can be expressed or implied. Express permission means you specifically allow someone to use your vehicle on a particular occasion. Implied permission means you generally give someone access to your vehicle. For example, if you leave your car keys out when you know your roommate typically borrows your car, implied consent will be established.
There are exceptions to the doctrine, such as the shop rule and bare naked title exceptions. The shop rule exception shields a vehicle owner from liability when a vehicle is entrusted to a repair shop and, while in the care of the shop, is involved in an accident. The bare naked title exception shields a vehicle owner from liability when another really owns the vehicle, but for some reason legal title has not been transferred. For example, if a vehicle owner sells the vehicle but the new owner fails to complete transfer of the title and is involved in an accident, the original owner is not liable.
Be careful when you allow others to use your vehicle. If you doubt the ability of someone to safely operate your vehicle, don't let them use it. If you have a teenage child who likes to "borrow" your car against your instructions, don't make your keys accessible. Lastly, if someone uses your vehicle with regularity, consider adding them as an additional operator under your insurance policy.