Appellate Decision Determines Florida Law Applies to Car Accident in South Carolina

Florida applies the dangerous instrumentality doctrine in personal injury lawsuits, which holds the owner of a vehicle generally liable for injuries that are caused by the negligent operation of the vehicle, no matter who is driving. Not all states use this doctrine. In a recent decision (Case No. 5D16-1641), the Fifth Florida District Court of Appeal looked at whether or not the plaintiff and the defendant were subject to this doctrine when the accident occurred in South Carolina, and they were both Florida residents. South Carolina does not have a dangerous instrumentality law. In South Carolina, they apply the Family Purpose Doctrine, which makes it harder to hold an owner liable for the negligent driving of another person using her or his vehicle.

The injured driver was rear-ended by the defendant-owner’s brother-in-law. The owner moved for a final summary judgment, arguing that South Carolina law prevailed, and he was not vicariously liable. The owner argued the case should be dismissed because there was no evidence that the owner negligently entrusted the vehicle to his brother-in-law. The trial court agreed, and the injured driver appealed. The appellate court of Florida agreed to review the lawsuit to determine which state’s law applied to the accident at hand.

To resolve conflicts of law, Florida uses the “significant relationships test” from the Restatement (2nd) of Conflict Laws, which looks at the connection the parties have to the state to determine which law to apply. The location of the injury is still taken into consideration, but the residence of the parties and the place where the relationship is centered are also assessed. With personal injuries, the default is to look at the location of the accident, but if another state has a more significant relationship under the test, that state’s law will be applied.

The appellate court determined that the application of this test does not necessarily apply to the case as a whole, but only to the issue under consideration. The court reasoned that while there are contacts with South Carolina as the site of the injury, the impact that it has on the issue is not as large as other factors. In this case, the injured person is trying to hold the owner vicariously liable for her injuries. In choosing between laws regarding vicarious liability, the court must look at whether the imposition of this liability is reasonable and if there’s a reasonable relationship between the defendant and the state whose law is to be applied.

The appellate court concluded that Florida had the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties on the issue of vicarious liability. The owner is a Florida resident, and the car involved in the accident was both insured and registered in Florida. These circumstances create a “reasonable relationship” between the defendant-owner and Florida. Since the injured person was also a Florida resident, the imposition of the vicarious liability doctrine makes sense, since it seeks to protect those who are injured. The court did not think South Carolina would be negatively affected, since neither the driver nor the owner lives in the state, and the state would have no interest in shielding the owner from liability. The court also felt the owner did not have any “justified expectations” that South Carolina law would protect him from liability. The appeals court found applying Florida law to two Florida residents with two vehicles registered and insured in Florida to have the most significant relationship, and therefore the case was subject to Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The trial court decision was reversed and the path cleared for the injured person to pursue negligence damages from the owner.

The South Florida car accident attorneys at Donaldson & Weston are here to help you with your personal injury lawsuit. Call today for a free, confidential consultation at 772-266-5555 and 561-299-3999.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016

Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016