Estranged spouse liable in car death

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An interesting legal story is making the rounds in the news here in Florida.  This past Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court held that a man is also liable for a fatal accident caused by his estranged wife because his name was on the car’s title.  Robert Christensen and his wife Mary Taylor-Christensen had a car with a title in both their names, but they were going through a divorce and lived separately. He didn’t have keys to the car or access to the garage where she kept it. He never even saw a copy of the title because it was mailed to Taylor-Christensen’s home. He did drive it once ” from Taylor-Christensen’s home to a car wash the day after he bought it for her during their divorce proceedings.  Then nearly two years later she struck and killed a man while driving drunk on Interstate 95. The deceased’s widow sued both of them and a jury originally found Christensen wasn’t liable for the death caused by his ex-wife. The Supreme Court overruled that decision. Whether he used the car or not, Christensen still had the legal right to drive it or to sell it because he still had the benefits of ownership, the court wrote. And the law says a vehicle’s owner shares responsibility of damage, injury or death is caused by another driver.

When two individuals submit an application for joint ownership, each co-owner commits himself or herself to the judgment of the other and is subject to vicarious liability for the other’s negligent use of the vehicle. Should a titleholder never intend to use a vehicle and wish to avoid vicarious liability, then the titleholder must divest himself or herself of any interest in the vehicle,” the court wrote. Christensen said the car was supposed to be a gift for Taylor-Christensen and that he never intended to use it. That doesn’t matter, the court said. He was still legally an owner and he showed no evidence that he tried to legally give up that right.

To read the entire opinion, click here.

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