The Week in Torts – Cases from the Week of August 23, 2019
“It’s Not Mine!”
FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY
VOLUME 44, NUMBER 34
CASES FROM THE WEEK OF AUGUST 23, 2019
FATHER WITH NAKED LEGAL TITLE WAS NOT VICARIOUSLY LIABLE AS THE OWNER FOR THE WRONGFUL DEATH CAUSED BY HIS SON WHO WAS OPERATING A VEHICLE HIS FATHER HAD SOLD TO HIM BEFORE THE ACCIDENT.
Ramirez Lucas v. Hutchinson, 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2085 (Fla. 4th DCA August 14, 2019):
A man collided with and killed a bicyclist. The plaintiff filed suit against both the driver and his father, who was purportedly the owner of the vehicle. The father argued that he only held naked legal title, and was therefore not the owner under the dangerous instrumentality rule
Approximately five months before the accident, the father delivered physical possession of the vehicle to the adult son along with both keys, the manual, and the registration. The same day, he provided the son with a signed certificate of title. For those five months, the vehicle remained at the son’s home and the son maintained sole possession, control, and use of the vehicle. The son paid all the associated costs of the vehicle, and the father, who did not reside with the son, did not operate or exercise dominion over the vehicle at any point after the transfer.
The defendants had initially agreed that the son would pay $2,500 for the vehicle but the payment was delayed until a month later, and not formalized until several months after that. However, once the father received payment from the son, he notified his insurance carrier that the vehicle should be removed from his policy because he no longer owned it. The father never notified the DMV of the sale or transfer as required under §319.22 Fla. Stat. The son never delivered the certificate of title to the DMV to complete the transfer either.
Section 319.22 provides that an owner who has made a bona fide sale or transfer of a motor vehicle and delivered possession to a purchaser should not be deemed the owner for civil liability purposes. The court stated that this section has been construed as affecting the marketability of the title, not the mere transfer passage of title and that there is no express language in the statute indicating that the legislature intended to abrogate the common law of sales.
Also, in 2014 the Supreme Court decided Christiansen, where the co-owner of a vehicle sought to avoid vicarious liability under the beneficial owner exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine but had taken no steps to transfer ownership pursuant to the statute prior to the accident. There is a beneficial ownership exception to the statute under that case. Beneficial ownership is unrelated to physical access to a vehicle, the past use of a vehicle, or intent to use or not to use a vehicle. Beneficial ownership arises from legal rights that allow an individual to exert some dominion and control over the vehicle; allowing theories of “subjective” intent would destabilize the law with regard to motor vehicles in Florida
In Christiansen, because the husband presented no evidence showing he took objective steps to transfer his co-ownership interest in the vehicle, he remained the beneficial owner regardless of his objective intent to gift the vehicle to his wife. The Supreme Court affirmed holdings of pre-2009 amendment (to §319.22) cases and reaffirmed that a titleholder who holds naked legal title under a faulty, incomplete transfer will not be subject to vicarious liability.
Thus, though physical access to a vehicle or intent to use or not to use a vehicle is insufficient standing alone to defeat vicarious liability, the presence of clear and unequivocal evidence showing that the titleholder took objective steps to transfer his or her interest in the vehicle, merely holding “naked legal title” under a faulty incomplete transfer, is sufficient to defeat vicarious liability.
NO ABUSE OF DISCRETION IN DISMISSING PLAINTIFF’S PERSONAL INJURY CASE FOR FRAUD ON THE COURT, BASED ON PLAINTIFF’S GROSS MISREPRESENTATIONS OF THE NATURE AND EXTENT OF HER INJURY, REPUDIATION OF PRIOR SWORN TESTIMONY AND FABRICATED EVIDENCE.
Virginia Pino CGH Hospital LTD, 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2097 (Fla. 3rd DCA August 14, 2019):
After a comprehensive evidentiary hearing where the court considered transcripts, surveillance recordings and live testimony, the trial court found that the plaintiff had grossly misrepresented the nature and extent of her injuries (evidenced by indisputable recorded surveillance), repudiated her prior sworn testimony regarding the alleged location and material circumstances of the disputed accident, and fabricated evidence to support her theory of the case. As those falsehoods were directly related to the central issue in controversy, namely liability, and damages, the trial court ruled to dismiss her case.
Employing the abuse of discretion standard which is somewhat narrowed because an order of dismissal for fraud must be based on clear convincing evidence, the court affirmed that dismissal. Finding the record amply reflected an intent to deceive the lower tribunal, the court said it could find no abuse of discretion and affirmed.