Today, the Florida Supreme Court said that a person whose name is on the certificate of title as a co-owner of a vehicle has a sufficient ownership interest in and right to control the vehicle such that they could be liable for another co-owner’s negligent use of the vehicle. In other words, the controlling factor in determining ownership of a vehicle is being listed on the certificate of title!
In Christensen v. Bowen, a former husband and wife held title to a vehicle as co-owners. After the wife negligently struck and killed someone, that person’s estate sought to hold the husband liable for wrongful death under the theory that the husband was a co-owner of the vehicle and thus “vicariously liable” for any injury resulting from use of the vehicle. The husband testified that he did not have keys to the car, was unable to access the car, that his intent was to purchase the vehicle as a gift for his wife, and that he had no involvement with the vehicle after it was purchased.
Nonetheless, the Court ruled that vehicle ownership is determined through legal title as reflected on the vehicle’s certificate of title; because a title holder has legal rights in the vehicle and is in a position to exert some dominion and control over the vehicle, he or she is a beneficial owner who can be liable for another co-owner’s negligence. It said “When two individuals submit an application for joint ownership, each co-owner commits himself or herself to the judgment of the other and is subject to vicarious liability for the other’s negligent use of the vehicle.”
So, what does this mean for you? It means that if you are a co-owner of a vehicle with another person, and that person negligently injures someone or something, you could be on the hook financially for the damages…even if you never drive the car or do not have access to it! After major life events such as a divorce or a child moving away to college, be sure to re-title your vehicle appropriately.