Florida Supreme Court Expands Responsibility of Titled Vehicle Owners and May Have Created an Uninsured Risk

By: David B. Shelton

04.10.14

 In Christensen v. Bowen, decided April 10, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court imposed vicarious liability on a joint titled owner of a vehicle even though that owner had not possessed, used, or actually exerted control over the vehicle. In this case, Mr. Christensen purchased a car intending for it to be a gift to his wife. They were involved in a divorce at the time of the purchase. The vehicle was titled to both Mr. Christensen and his wife.   Almost two years later, his then ex-wife was involved in an accident, and suit was brought against her and also against Mr. Christensen as a co-owner of the vehicle. The jury was instructed that vicarious liability could be imposed when a person both has title to the vehicle and has beneficial ownership of the vehicle. The jury found that Mr. Christensen was not liable. The appellate court reversed, imposing liability against Mr. Christensen based on the fact that he had a property interest in the vehicle as a titled owner. The Florida Supreme Court agreed. The Court held that a person who is on the title to a vehicle is vicariously responsible for its use. The Court further rejected Mr. Christensen’s defense, based on apparently undisputed evidence, that he did not use the vehicle, he could not use the vehicle, he did not have access to the ex-wife’s garage where it was kept, he did not reside with his ex-wife, and he did not have a key to the vehicle.

This decision has significant insurance consequences for titled owners like Mr. Christensen who do not have actual possession of the vehicle. Most automobile insurance polices cover accidents involving “covered autos” or “insured autos.” Those terms, as typically defined in the policies, do not include a vehicle which the policyholder owns but does not pay to insure. It is likely that Mr. Christensen did not insure this vehicle on his policy, and did not even think to insure it, because he did not possess or use it. As a result, the vehicle may not be covered and Mr. Christensen may not be protected by insurance against the vicarious liability which is now imposed against him. Moreover, it is likely that Mr. Christensen could not have insured the vehicle under these circumstances where it was not garaged at his residence. The typical policy will not expand coverage for a vehicle garaged at another location which is used primarily, or exclusively as in this case, by a non-relative who resides in another location. Further, Mr. Christensen may not benefit from his ex-wife’s insurance, if he does not qualify as an insured person under her policy. Thus, this may be an entirely uninsured and uninsurable risk for him.

The Court’s decision imposes vicarious liability against Mr. Christensen based on his mere status as joint titled owner of the vehicle. The Court notes that, as a joint owner, Mr. Christensen had the legal right to take possession of the vehicle. This suggests that he could have prevented his ex-wife from using the vehicle if he wanted and, in that manner, protected himself from liability for her accidents. But this suggestion ignores the fact that the ex-wife was also a joint titled owner of the vehicle – so she had an equal right to possess the vehicle. The Court does not explain how Mr. Christensen could assert a superior legal right to possession against his ex-wife, and it ignores the reality of the situation where the other titled owner had the only keys to the vehicle. As a matter of public policy, it seems unnecessary and unwise to impose responsibility on Mr. Christensen under these circumstances, especially if this responsibility is uninsured.