47 Fla. L. Weekly D101a
RONNIE AARON RONDELL, Appellant, v. DANIEL ROMANO, CUONG VI DIEP, and TAI CHI DIEP, Appellees. 2nd District. Case No. 2D20-2840. January 5, 2022. Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County; Paul L. Huey, Judge. Counsel: Robin P. Keener of Stoler Russell Keener Verona P.A., Tampa, for Appellant. Kenneth E. Amos, Jr., and Brandt A. Carlson of Vernis & Bowling of St. Petersburg, P.A., St. Petersburg, for Appellee Daniel Romano. No appearance for remaining Appellees Cuong Vi Diep and Tai Chi Diep.
(CASANUEVA, Judge.) This case centers on the concept of beneficial ownership under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The trial court entered a final summary judgment in favor of Mr. Romano after concluding that Mr. Rondell failed to establish by record facts that Mr. Romano possessed a beneficial ownership interest in the vehicle at issue. We affirm.TRIAL COURT PROCEEDINGS
On November 22, 2016, Mr. Rondell sustained a severe injury to his left foot when a 2002 Honda Accord driven by Tai Chi Diep collided with the left side of Mr. Rondell’s motorcycle. Cuong Vi Diep, Tai’s father, was the sole title owner of the 2002 Honda Accord. Tai was the primary driver of the vehicle.
Prior to the accident, Tai and Cuong were in the process of selling the Honda Accord to Mr. Romano. Mr. Romano testified that he intended to purchase the car for his daughter. In preparation of obtaining a tag for the vehicle, Mr. Romano procured and paid for car insurance on the Honda Accord. Although Mr. Romano added the Honda Accord to his insurance policy, the vehicle was never sold to Mr. Romano. The parties never discussed a purchase price or a date of transfer, and no money for the vehicle exchanged hands. Further, Cuong and Tai both testified that Cuong was the sole title owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident.
On February 3, 2017, Mr. Rondell filed a complaint alleging a negligence claim against Tai and vicarious liability claims against Cuong and Mr. Romano, as owners of the Honda Accord operated with consent by Tai. On March 16, 2020, Mr. Romano filed an amended motion for final summary judgment. In his amended motion, Mr. Romano argued that he held no legal title and no beneficial interest in the 2002 Honda Accord and was therefore not vicariously liable under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine.
During the final summary judgment hearing, Mr. Rondell argued that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding Mr. Romano’s beneficial ownership of the vehicle. Mr. Rondell asserted that Mr. Romano’s beneficial ownership of the vehicle subjected him to vicarious liability under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. To support his assertion, Mr. Rondell pointed to the fact that Mr. Romano purchased car insurance on the vehicle and that Mr. Romano intended to purchase the vehicle.
The trial court granted Mr. Romano’s amended motion for summary judgment, finding that Mr. Romano was not an owner and held no legal title to the Honda Accord. The sole argument Mr. Rondell raises on appeal is that summary judgment was improper given the genuine issue of material fact as to Mr. Romano’s beneficial interest in the vehicle.DISCUSSION
We examine the trial court’s order granting final summary judgment and denying Mr. Rondell’s assertion that Mr. Romano possessed an identifiable property interest in the 2002 Honda Accord in two parts. We first discuss beneficial ownership under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, and second, we discuss who may assert its application.
We begin by identifying the language used to define the application and scope of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Judicially “[a]dopted in 1920, 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.” Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So. 2d 60, 62 (Fla. 2000) (citing S. Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 86 So. 629, 637 (Fla. 1920)). Thus, “an owner who gives authority to another to operate the owner’s vehicle, by either express or implied consent, has a nondelegable obligation to ensure that the vehicle is operated properly.” Hertz Corp. v. Jackson, 617 So. 2d 1051, 1053 (Fla. 1993).
We conclude that the initial analytical step imposed by this judicial doctrine is to focus upon the identity of the owner, as the nondelegable obligation rests upon that determination. To qualify as an owner, the law requires a party to possess an identifiable property interest in the subject vehicle. See Kraemer v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 572 So. 2d 1363, 1364-67 (Fla. 1990). An identifiable property interest has been defined to include ownership, bailment, rental, or lease of the subject automobile. Aurbach, 753 So. 2d at 62 (citing Kraemer, 572 So. 2d at 1364-67). After extending the doctrine of vicarious liability to encompass situations where the vehicle’s owner acted as a lessor or bailor of the vehicle, the doctrine was further expanded to include “lessees and bailees of motor vehicles who authorize other individuals to operate the motor vehicles.” Id. at 63 (citing Frankel v. Fleming, 69 So. 2d 887, 888 (Fla. 1954)).
The judicial branch has limited the doctrine’s expansion by establishing “that the beneficial ownership exception is narrow and applies only where the titleholder holds title under a conditional sales agreement or has sold the vehicle and transferred possession.” Christensen v. Bowen, 140 So. 3d 498, 503 (Fla. 2014).
Here, the record before the trial court demonstrated only the possible sale of the Honda Accord to Mr. Romano in the future. Mr. Rondell did not present any evidence indicating that the parties completed the sale of the Honda Accord. Instead, the record established that Mr. Romano was only preparing, by obtaining insurance, to acquire the Honda — a future event that would never occur due to the accident. No evidence was produced suggesting Mr. Romano possessed the ability to exercise control of the vehicle at the time of the accident. Rather, the evidence demonstrated that after the accident, Mr. Romano acted to dispose of the Honda’s remains.
The record fails to demonstrate that Mr. Romano possessed one of the applicable identifiable property interests. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s order granting final summary judgment.
Additionally, this court has a second, independent basis for affirmance. In Lambert v. Emerson, 304 So. 3d 364, 372 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020), review granted, SC20-1311, 2021 WL 1661247 (Fla. Apr. 28, 2021), this court recognized that “the extension of beneficial ownership under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine should be reserved for instances where the car’s owner was trying to deny vicarious liability.” That is not the case here. Rather, the vehicle’s owner, Cuong Vi Diep, admitted ownership of the vehicle at issue several times.
Further, “beneficial ownership arises from legal rights that allow an individual to exert some dominion and control over the use of the vehicle.” Christensen, 140 So. 3d at 504. Thus, “beneficial ownership is unrelated to physical access to a vehicle, past use of a vehicle, or intent to use or not use a vehicle.” Id. Because beneficial ownership under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine applies when the owner of the vehicle denies ownership, the doctrine does not extend so far as to permit the accident victim to initiate its application. To do so would transfer a limited judicial doctrine into an expansive policy decision.
The reasoning in Lambert applies in the instant matter. Lambert is consistent with the observation that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine was judicially enacted to address public policy concerns and, as such, it is to be construed narrowly so that a judicial construction does not intrude upon the prerogatives of the legislative branch of our state government. See Est. of Villanueva ex rel. Villanueva v. Youngblood, 927 So. 2d 955, 957-58 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (discussing the origins of the doctrine and the longstanding reluctance to its judicial expansion).
Recognizing that to the extent the law seeks to make a victim whole through an award of damages in civil cases where the title owner denies ownership, it follows that the law should permit a wrongfully alleged tortfeasor to avoid liability for those damages. While an injured party should be compensated according to law, the law should also protect a third party from being inserted into a pending action. There are financial considerations flowing from such entitlement. As such, the judiciary should be prudent in permitting a party with an interest to assert a judicially crafted doctrine to draw an individual into litigation and all that the litigation process entails. As a matter of policy, it may be a matter to be addressed by the legislature.
We hold, as a second basis of affirmance, that the concept of beneficial ownership under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine of vicarious liability does not operate here as the title owner admitted ownership of the vehicle at issue.
Affirmed. (KHOUZAM and LUCAS, JJ., Concur.)* * *