Do You Know in Whose Name Your Car is Titled?

When I meet with clients one of the topics I discuss is protection from lawsuits. Generally the highest risk asset is the automobile or the boat, both of which are a “dangerous instrumentality”. If, for any reason, the driver kills someone the owner can be liable.

A recent Florida Supreme Court case, Christensen v. Bowen, No. SC12-2078 decided on April 10, 2014 an EX husband, Robert owned a car with his ex wife. Apparently he purchased it but the title and all the paperwork went to Mary and Robert really had nothing further to do with the car.  Mary, while under the influence of alcohol, struck and killed Mr. Bowen. Mr. Bowen’s personal representative sued both Mary and Robert. The jury found that Robert did not have a “beneficial interest” in the car (he never intended to “drive or own it”) and he was not liable. The Fifth District held that Robert was liable and they certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court.

“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 Florida Supreme Court answered NO.

Advice: Carefully review the titles of your cars and remember that if the title is in both spouses’ names a creditor can reach accounts held as tenants by the entireties which would would otherwise be exempt from one spouse’s creditors.


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