Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine and Vicarious Liability

Posted in Legal Alerts on September 16, 2022

People who have been injured in a truck accident will look for ways to sue someone other than the truck driver. They know the truck driver does not have the personal assets to pay for their injuries. Instead, they will go looking for the deepest pocket they can find against which to file a lawsuit. In nearly all cases, this means they will file a lawsuit against the trucking company. There are several ways in which trucking companies can be held legally responsible for an accident under Florida law.

The Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Means a Vehicle’s Owner Is Liable for the Driver’s Negligence

One potential cause of action against a trucking company is unique to Florida law. Florida's judges have created a common law Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine that allows accident victims to sue the owner of the motor vehicle that injured them. The Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine is not a statute on the books, but rather it originated from Florida case law. For example, if a person borrows a car and is involved in an accident, the injured party may sue the owner of the vehicle for the resulting damages they suffered. It does not matter that someone else was driving the car.

This doctrine also applies to truck accident cases. All a plaintiff needs to show is that the driver of the truck was negligent. Once they can prove who owns the truck, they can include the owner in the lawsuit. The only requirement that needs to be met in order to hold the truck owner liable is that it let someone else drive its truck. In a sense, this is a form of strict liability for the vehicle owner.

Once an owner gives either express or implied consent to another to drive their vehicle, they assume a duty to ensure the vehicle is operated safely. This is a duty they cannot delegate to someone else. It does not matter if the owner gave strict instructions or had firm rules; they would still be liable for any accidents, even if the operator disregarded those instructions or rules, or federal or state laws and regulations.

Exceptions to the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

There are some exceptions to the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, although most of them would not apply to a standard truck accident case. The owner of a truck may not be liable if:

  • The vehicle involved in the accident was stolen
  • The accident was caused by a repair shop employee who was driving the vehicle when the truck was in for maintenance
  • The owner had sold the vehicle, but had not formally completed the transaction at the time of the accident

If a truck was rented from a company, like a U-Haul truck, the rental company would likely not be liable. That’s because Florida law and a federal law known as the Graves Amendment exempt rental car and truck companies from liability so long as the following conditions apply:

  • The vehicle’s owner regularly engages in the business of renting vehicles; and
  • The owner themself was not negligent.

Florida's courts have gradually expanded the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine over the years to apply to even more vehicles. For example, in 2018, the Florida Supreme Court held the doctrine applies to loaders. Usually, most types of motorized equipment will be considered dangerous instrumentalities, so long as they operate on a highway or road.

The Vicarious Liability of a Trucking Company

Most commonly, those injured in a truck accident will sue the trucking company under vicarious liability doctrines based on a core principle of personal injury law called respondeat superior. This principle comes into play when an employee has caused an injury while on the job. For the purposes of personal injury law, an employee is considered to be an agent of the company that employs them. Any acts of the employee are considered to be the actions of their employer. Therefore, if a truck driver is negligent, this negligence is imputed on the trucking company itself. The theory of vicarious liability is that a trucking company should not be able to benefit from the actions of the driver while escaping liability for their wrongdoing.

A trucking company can be held liable through vicarious liability if its driver was involved in an accident if:

  • The truck driver was an employee under control of the trucking company;
  • The truck driver was subject to actual control based on their authority; and
  • The employee was actually on the job at the time the accident occurred (rather than running a personal errand).

If a plaintiff can prove each of those three elements, along with the truck driver's negligence, they may be able to recover a substantial amount of money due to the significant insurance policies transportation companies are required to carry.

People are looking for reasons to sue a trucking company. They know these companies maintain large insurance policies to fully protect them when their trucks are involved in accidents. They also know a hostile jury can hit a trucking company with a very large verdict, and they try to take full advantage of it.

In addition to vicarious liability cases, trucking companies are also targeted in negligent hiring and retention lawsuits. In these cases, the trucking company would need to know about the driver's propensity for causing an accident, either before it hires them or continues their employment. The trucking company must rigorously screen the driver's background before allowing them to get behind the wheel. In addition, if the trucking company learns information that shows the driver to be dangerous, it may also have a legal obligation to fire the driver. Negligent hiring and retention are often used in lawsuits as proof of a trucking company’s negligence when a driver is an independent contractor and not an employee. This claim can be an independent legal claim against the trucking company.