Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Law and Legal Definition

Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine is a common law doctrine which provides that the owner of an inherently dangerous tool is liable for any injuries caused by that tool's operation. The Florida Supreme Court in Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 469 (Fla. 1920), extended the doctrine to motor vehicles, holding that owners may be held accountable for any damages suffered by third parties as the result of the negligent operation of their vehicles, when they are driven by others with their knowledge and consent. This doctrine imposes strict vicarious liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes damage to another. Therefore whoever authorizes and permits an instrumentality that is peculiarly dangerous in its operation to be used by an individual on the public highway is liable in damages for injuries to third persons caused by the negligent operation of such instrumentality on the highway by any person so authorized by the owner of the instrumentality.

In order to hold a person vicariously liable under this doctrine, such person must have an identifiable property interest in the vehicle. Legal title remains the most common basis for imposing vicarious liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. However, a narrow exception for the legal title owner to escape vicarious liability has been recognized where the holder of "mere naked title" is able to demonstrate the absence of beneficial ownership of the vehicle. [Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc., 81 So. 2d 635, 637 (Fla. 1955),Court first explained that "mere naked title" could repose in one entity but "beneficial ownership" in another.]

Case law has extended vicarious liability to the owner of a vehicle acting as a lessor or bailor for the negligent operation of the vehicle by the lessee or bailee. The owner-lessor is vicariously liable in situations where the vehicle is operated by one other than the authorized lessee in violation of the terms of the lease. The owner of a vehicle under long-term lease is liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine for the negligence of driver of vehicle. In addition to holding owners vicariously liable, courts also recognize the vicarious liability of lessees and bailees of motor vehicles who authorize other individuals to operate the motor vehicles. However, whether an entity or individual is vicariously responsible as a bailee for the negligent operation of a motor vehicle will depend on the facts.

An entity or individual who complies with the statutory requirements of the conditional sales statute may be exempt from vicarious liability, even though the entity retains legal title to the vehicle as security for the payment of the purchase price. Further, under existing Florida statutory law, there is only one instance where a parent can be held vicariously liable for his or her child's negligent operation of a motor vehicle absent an identifiable property interest in the vehicle, such as ownership, rental, lease, conditional sale or bailment. Pursuant to section 322.09(2), Florida Statutes (1997), the parent who signs the driver's license application for a minor child can be held vicariously liable for the child's negligent operation of a motor vehicle. This responsibility ends, however, when the child reaches the age of majority.