The Fourth DCA in
Adams reversed a summary judgment entered in favor of the defense. The plaintiffs
were injured in a car accident with a rental car paid for by an employer
and authorized to be driven by an employee, but was being driven by the
employee’s husband at the time of the incident. The appellate court
found that material issues of fact existed which should be presented to a jury.
The defendant employer had authorized its employee to rent and drive a
vehicle for business purposes. The plaintiffs sued the defendant employer
under the ‘dangerous instrumentality’ doctrine alleging that
the employer was vicariously liable because it authorized and paid for
the employee to rent the vehicle. The employee frequently traveled for
work purposes, and the employer would reimburse her for mileage or pay
for a rental car. While the employee understood that the rental car was
to be used for work and work-related purposes, her supervisor had never
objected to the employee’s husband driving the rental cars, despite
knowing he would do so. In addition, the supervisor often let his wife
drive rental cars paid for by the employer. This despite the fact that
company policy strictly prohibited the use of rental vehicles for personal
purposes and prohibited non-employees from operating the rental cars.
The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the employee’s
husband did not have prior consent or authorization to drive the rental
car, that the employer’s policy prohibited such use, and that the
employee’s husband’s actions constituted a species of conversion
or theft. The trial court granted the employer’s motion.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine
and the principle of bailment render the employer vicariously liable.
“Florida’s dangerous instrumentality 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.” Bailment is “generally a contractual
relationship among parties in which the subject matter of the relationship
is delivered temporarily to and accepted by one other than the owner.”
“[A] person for whose benefit a vehicle is rented and who pays the
expense thereof can be found to be a bailee of the vehicle.” The
employer argued, in response, that the employee’s husband’s
driving the vehicle without prior consent or authorization constitute
a “species of conversion or theft” which would relieve the
employer of vicarious liability.
The Fourth DCA noted that an entity’s status as a bailee is a question
of fact for a jury to resolve. Similarly, questions of fact are raised
when an entity denies vicarious liability arguing conversion or theft
of the subject vehicle. Where an owner consented to the use of his vehicle
beyond his own immediate control, he is responsible for its use or misuse
unless there has been a breach of custody amounting to a species of conversion
or theft. The Fourth DCA found that whether the employer is vicariously
liable for the employee’s husband’s driving of the rental
vehicle requires a fact-based inquiry of the employer’s status as
a bailee. Therefore, the Fourth DCA reversed the summary judgment entered
in the employer’s favor.