You were in a motor vehicle accident and now you’re wondering who will be liable. There are two lines of inquiry that should be pursued initially—potential defendants and potential insurance coverage. This blog article is Part I of a two-part blog that focuses on the former, potential defendants. A subsequent blog article will discuss potential insurance coverage.

There are several categories of potential defendants that should be investigated, discussed below. However, note that these are not exhaustive and each situation should be evaluated individually because analysis is fact intensive and may vary.

Owner and Operator Liability

It is common knowledge that the operator of a vehicle who causes an accident may be held liable for his or her negligence. In Florida, however, both the owner and the operator of a vehicle may liable for negligent operation of the vehicle under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The Florida Supreme Court summarized the liability imposed by the doctrine as “the obligation resting on the master or owner of an instrumentality that is peculiarly dangerous in its operation, when he entrusts it to another to operate on the public highways.” S. Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 445, (1920).

Under the doctrine, strict liability (i.e. liability that does not depend on actual negligence or intent to harm of the liable party) is imposed upon an owner who entrusts a vehicle to someone who operates it negligently and thereby harms another. For purposes of the doctrine, an owner is someone with an identifiable property interest in the vehicle (i.e. ownership, bailment, rental, or lease). There are some limitations to this rule. For example, under the “shop rule” exception, an owner is not ordinarily liable for negligent operation by a repair shop during servicing or service-related testing. Under the federal Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106, lessors engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles (e.g. car rental companies) are exempted from vicarious liability (absent negligence or criminal wrongdoing on their part). The Graves amendment preempts state law, and therefore takes precedence over the dangerous instrumentality doctrine with regard to those within its scope. The Graves amendment does not negate minimum state insurance or financial responsibility requirements, however, and so insurance coverage availability should still be analyzed.

The bottom line is that liability is not limited to the person driving—analysis must also look to persons or entities with an ownership interest in the vehicles involved in the accident.

Employer/Employee and Principle/Agent Liability

 The doctrine of respondeat superior imposes vicarious liability for a employee’s negligence upon the employer if the employee’s conduct was within the scope of his or her employment. This is true even if the employee was driving his or her own vehicle. To determine if the negligent conduct was “within the course and scope of employment,” courts analyze whether it: (1) is the type of work the employee was hired to perform; (2) substantially occurs during the time and space limits authorized or required for the work; and (3) is done, at least in part, in order to serve the employer. The analysis is not based solely upon whether the parties themselves consider the negligent person to be, or label the person as, an employee. The courts look to the employer’s actual control or right to control the employee at the time of the negligent act.

Although a vehicle may appear to be a personal vehicle, it is important to conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether the at-fault party was within the course and scope of his or her employment at the time of the negligence.

 See Part II—Parents, Legal Guardians, Private and Public Agencies and Entities

This blog articles discusses liability of owners, operators, and employers for negligent acts resulting in motor vehicle accidents that cause damage to others. See Part II of this blog for a discussion of other potential defendants, including parents of minors and certain private and government entities.

Seek Legal and Medical Services Promptly

For all of the foregoing reasons, it is imperative that a thorough investigation is conducted promptly to identify potential at-fault or liable parties. In addition, there are several additional steps to take immediately in order to preserve your ability to seek compensation for damages incurred, such as seeking prompt medical care from an appropriate medical provider either immediately or within 14 days to make a claim for compensation through your no-fault personal injury protection (PIP) benefits.

Even if you would just like to preserve your right to make a claim at a later date, contact a knowledgeable attorney promptly so you can ensure you do not fail to take important steps within the needed time limitations.

Contact us to discuss your claim and we will be happy to help you navigate the process in the manner most appropriate for your particular situation. We offer you the ability to speak with an actual attorney (in most cases within 24 hours) before choosing a law firm so that you can get to know us and feel comfortable in your choice.