That old adage is as true today as the day it was coined and unfortunately for one Former Husband he learned, the hard and expensive way, how relevant that saying can be.
Our subject is Mr. Christensen who at one time or another was married to Mrs. Christensen but at the time of these unfortunate circumstances was divorced from Mrs. Christensen. However, just prior to their divorce the Christensen’s purchased a new car that was titled to both of them as co-owners. At the time of their divorce and as part of their divorce agreement Mrs. Christensen retained that car, used it as her own and parked it in her garage as one would do with a car they owned.
Not quite two years after the Christensen’s divorce Mrs. Christensen, while driving that very same car, struck and killed a pedestrian. The car, at the time of the accident, remained titled to both Mr. Christensen and his Former Wife as neither had applied to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new title indicating that the car now legally belonged to Mrs. Christensen. As one might expect the pedestrian’s family sued the Former Wife under an allegation that she was negligently operating the vehicle at the time she hit the pedestrian. In addition, they also sued Mr. Christensen under the two interconnected legal theorys of Vicarious Liability and the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine. In their simplest forms Vicarious Liability is the imputation of liability upon one person for the actions of another and the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine serves to ensure financial recourse to members of the public who are injured by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by imposing strict vicarious liability on those with an identifiable property ownership interest in the vehicle (ie. being a titled owner of the vehicle).
Of course Mr. Christensen argued that he should not be held liable or responsible for the actions of his Former Wife as he was not the true owner of the car, had no control over its use and in fact had no keys to the car after his divorce from the Former Wife. The jury at the Trial Court level agreed with Mr. Christensen and absolved him of any liability in the pedestrian’s death.
However, as is sometimes the case, the pedestrian’s family filed an appeal regarding the jury’s decision in the Trial Court asserting that because Mr. Christensen was a titled owner of the vehicle he was in fact liable under the legal theories of Vicarious Liability and the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine. The Appellate Court after reviewing the case agreed with the pedestrian’s family but, also due to what the Appellate Court believed to be a question of great public importance, certified the matter to the Supreme Court of Florida asking:
MAY A PERSON WHOSE NAME IS ON THE CERTIFICATE OF TITLE OF A VEHICLE AS CO–OWNER AVOID VICARIOUS LIABILITY UNDER AN EXCEPTION TO THE DANGEROUS INSTRUMENTALITY DOCTRINE BY ASSERTING THAT HE NEVER INTENDED TO BE THE OWNER OF THE VEHICLE AND FURTHER CLAIMING THAT HE RELINQUISHED CONTROL TO A CO–OWNER OF THE VEHICLE?
The Supreme Court answered the question with a resounding “NO” holding that Mr. Christensen, as a joint titleholder, had a legal right to encumber, sell, or take possession of the vehicle. Had he wished, he could have done any of the above, and the mere fact that he did not act on these legal rights does not alter or diminish their existence. Further, had the Former Mrs. Christensen died, Mr. Christensen would have inherited the vehicle because of his joint ownership interest. Therefore, he indisputably was in a position to exercise dominion and control over the vehicle and was a beneficial owner of the vehicle. Mr. Christensen could not avoid his liability and ultimately the money damages that where awarded to the pedestrian’s family for the loss of their loved one.
Unfortunately for Mr. Christensen the initial cost of protecting himself from this outcome was somewhere in the area of $75.00, the fee the Department of Motor Vehicles charges a person to transfer a title, a cost far outweighed by the thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars he paid to litigate his case up through the Supreme Court level. Hmmm, that reminds me of another saying: Penny Wise and Pound Foolish.