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Christensen v. Bowen – Vicarious Liability for Vehicle Owners

In the event of a car accident, Boston injury attorneys will often explore the possibility of vehicle owner liability – even when the owner wasn’t driving and may have been nowhere near the site of the crash.
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This is due to the legal principle of vicarious liability, which under English common law was referred to as “respondeat superior.” Essentially, a “superior” can be held liable for the negligent actions of a “servant.” It’s under this principle that companies employing reckless commercial drivers can be sued. It’s also under this principle that a parent could be sued for handing over the keys to a teen who has a history of making poor decisions behind the wheel.

However, it also allows that simple ownership of a vehicle makes one responsible for its use. Further, simply having one’s name on the title could indicate liability, at least according to a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court.

The case is Christensen v. Bowen, and it deals with a divorced couple who were co-owners of a vehicle involved in a fatal crash.

At the time the vehicle was purchased, the two were married. In fact, the husband was the one who paid for the PT Cruiser in cash, according to court records. For this reason, his name was on the title, but so was his wife’s, and she was the one who drove the vehicle exclusively.

After they separated, as part of the divorce settlement, she was allowed to keep the car. Her ex-husband had no access to the vehicle. He didn’t have a key. He couldn’t enter the garage where the car was kept. By all accounts, he had never driven before. He would later contend that the vehicle was always intended as a gift to his then-wife, and he never had any intention of having anything to do with it after.

Roughly two years after the purchase of the car, the ex-wife was driving it when she caused a fatal crash. The widow of the man she killed sued not only her, but her ex-husband as well, claiming he held vicarious liability as co-owner of the vehicle.

While the trial court declined to grant him a summary judgment, a jury did decide the case in his favor, finding credibility with his argument that he had no beneficial ownership or control of the vehicle.

On appeal however, the appellate court reversed that finding, ruling that the husband did have a property interest in the vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court decision, further asserting that the husband’s intentions at the time of purchase were irrelevant. He retained ownership of the vehicle, and therefore retained the potential for liability.

Vicarious liability doesn’t release the driver from responsibility for a crash. Instead, it adds responsibility on the shoulders of the vehicle owner.

There have been legislative chances to vicarious liability law where ownership responsibility has been restricted. Most notably, this includes the Graves Amendment, which absolves rental car companies of liability for the negligent driving of their customers.

Still, there are many cases where it still may be applicable.

If you are injured in a car accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:
Christensen v. Bowen, April 10, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Prevent Motor Vehicle Deaths By Cracking Down on All Dangerous Drivers, March 29, 2014, Boston Car Accident Lawyer Blog