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Florida Second DCA rules that defendant in motor vehicle negligence case did not have “beneficial ownership” of vehicle for purposes of the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine since there was no sales contract or transfer of possession of vehicle to defendant

On January 5, 2022, in Rondell v. Romano, et al., No. 2D20-2840, the Florida Second DCA affirmed a summary judgment for the defendant in a motor vehicle negligence case based upon the defendant’s lack of a beneficial ownership interest in the vehicle at issue. Prior to the accident, the defendant had negotiated to purchase the vehicle and had obtained car insurance for it, but the purchase fell through and no money for the vehicle exchanged hands. The defendant successfully argued before the trial court that because he held no legal title or beneficial interest in the vehicle at the time of the accident, he was not vicariously liable under Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Act. The Second DCA noted that for a defendant to have an interest in the motor vehicle cognizable under the Act, he or she must have had an identifiable property interest, defined to include ownership, bailment, rental, or lease of the motor vehicle, citing Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So. 2d 60, 62 (Fla. 2000). The Court further noted 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, quoting from Christensen v. Bowen, 140 So. 3d 498, 503 (Fla. 2014). Finally, the Court cited as an alternative ground for affirmance that the beneficial ownership extension has been held to apply only when the car owner was trying to deny vicarious liability, citing Lambert v. Emerson, 304 So. 3d 364, 372 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020), review granted, SC20-1311, 2021 WL 1661247 (Fla. Apr. 28, 2021). The Court pointed out that this was not true in this case since the title owner of the vehicle was not denying ownership.