Your car is probably the most dangerous item you own. We think of our vehicles as useful tools, but they are also a source of tremendous potential liability.

While we all know we can be held liable for any accidents that result from our driving mistakes, many people in Florida do not realize that they can also be held liable if someone else is driving their car and causes an accident. That’s a frightening thought. You need to be aware of the risks and what you can do to minimize them.

The Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

Under the law, anything that is inherently dangerous or that can cause harm if used carelessly is considered a “dangerous instrumentality.” Explosives would be a classic example. The owner of a dangerous instrumentality is held strictly liable for harm caused by that dangerous article, even if they weren’t negligent in using it or weren’t even around at the time of the harm.

Over 100 years ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that this doctrine pertains to automobiles. Some limits apply, however. First, the owner of the vehicle must have permitted the driver to be held liable for the driver’s actions. That means you are not responsible for what happens if someone steals your car. However, the permission doesn’t have to be explicit. If someone takes your car without asking and you’ve allowed such behavior in the past, you could be considered to have given implied permission for them to use it.

The other important limitation imposes caps on the amount of liability for a borrowed vehicle. The limits are higher in situations where the driver is uninsured or carries insurance with low coverage.

Other Laws That Extend Your Liability as a Vehicle Owner

You should also be aware of the negligent entrustment doctrine. This makes you liable if you lend your vehicle to someone in a situation where you knew it was not a good idea. If you let someone drive your car after they’ve been drinking, for instance, you could be liable for any accidents that result. The law does not limit your liability as it does for the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, so you could be responsible for staggering losses.

It is also important to know that if you sign a Parental Consent form for a minor, you will be held liable for their actions with no limitations, just as in the case of negligent entrustment.

How to Limit Your Risks

You can protect yourself by taking these steps:

  1. Examine all vehicle titles, including those for vehicles you helped someone else buy. If you are not the primary driver, remove your name from the title. You can still be covered by insurance on that vehicle, but you won’t incur vicarious liability as an owner. This applies to husband and wife as well. 
  2. Talk to your insurance agent to make sure you have enough coverage to handle the statutory minimum under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
  3. Think carefully before lending someone your car. Remember that if you act negligently when entrusting your vehicle, you can be held personally liable for considerable losses.
  4. Consider an umbrella policy to handle larger claims. 

Consider the Big Picture with Your Estate Plan

Insurance and other strategies can all be a part of a comprehensive estate plan. At Sawyer & Sawyer, P.A., we strive to help our clients prepare for whatever may come next in life. Contact us to review your plan.