In most situations, unfortunately, yes. Florida Courts, traditionally, have said that the owner of a motor vehicle is responsible for accidents and injuries caused by that vehicle, even when the vehicle is driven by a friend or family member. The courts have gone so far as to state that when a vehicle is used negligently, it becomes a “dangerous instrumentality” on the roadway.
For years, rental car companies were held to that standard, and they shared in the responsibility for accidents caused by vehicles that they owned. This changed dramatically on August 10, 2005, when a new federal highway improvement law was enacted (The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, 49 U.S.C. sec. 30106). This is a federal law, designed, in part, to improve roadways, which also included an amendment protecting rental car companies. The rental car companies were no longer responsible for damage done by their drivers, and lawsuits were not allowed against the companies.
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Of course, there was an exception to this new rule, which is currently being litigated in courts across the country, including the Florida Supreme Court. The protection of these companies was limited in certain states; in some states, you could continue to sue the company, and in others, you could not. In the first year following this new law, the Florida trial courts were divided on whether you could still sue a rental car company in our state. Some courts allowed lawsuits, some did not.
In law school, we learn that there are 2 sides to every argument. So, here is the reasoning behind the 2 sides of the argument. Those who support the federal law are concerned about holding the vehicle owner responsible, when it is an individual driver who caused the accident. In addition, they believe that the rental and leasing industry is important, and needs to be protected. The side that opposes the federal law believes that it is an unfair stretch of federal power, and interferes with state laws and state rights. Traditionally, concepts like negligence and responsibility for accidents have been a part of the state law system. Also, this side believes that the victim of the accident needs to be protected, and preventing lawsuits against the owner of the vehicle could result in victims suffering significant medical expenses and pain and suffering, with no adequate remedy.
For years, rental car companies were held to that standard, and they shared in the responsibility for accidents caused by vehicles that they owned.
Currently, the application of this law is being challenged in the Vargas case (Rafael Vargas v. Enterprise Leasing Co., 993 So. 2d 614 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008)) which was heard by the Florida Supreme Court on March 1, 2010. This case has already been presented to a trial court and an appellate court in Florida. Both courts have agreed with Enterprise, and ruled that a lawsuit against the company was not allowed. Now, we wait and see what the Court has to say. Unless they decide to overrule the appellate court, rental car companies, not victims, will continue to be protected in Florida.
— Bill Galione
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