Florida Rental Car Accident Law – Is the Rental Car Company Responsible for Injured Motorists Simply as the Owner of the Vehicle?

Everyday, people come to Florida as tourists from the North East and from all over the world, given our hot temperatures and lush beach towns (such as Miami Beach, South Beach, Hollywood Beach, Fort Lauderdale Beach, beaches throughout the Florida keys (including Key West, Islamorada, Marathon, Tavernier and Key Largo), Sanibel, Naples, Siesta Key, Daytona Beach, Clearwater Beach, Cocoa beach, Delray Beach and Palm Beach). Many of these vacation or snow bird activities involve getting a rental car for the time spent in South Florida, such as from Enterprise, Hertz, Fox Rent a Car, Dollar Rent a Car, Thrifty Car Rental, Alamo, Budget, National, Ace Rent a Car, Midway Car Rental, EZ Rent a Car or Payless. Unfortunately, car accidents are so very common on our Florida road ways, many of which involve serious injuries to drivers and passengers of rental cars, or even traffic accidents with motorcycles, bicycles and/or pedestrians. A question often asked of a Miami, Florida rental car crash attorney, is whether the rental car company is responsible for injuries sustained by one in an rental car accident simply by way of their ownership of the motor vehicle.

According to the Florida Supreme Court in Vargas v. Enterprise Leasing Co., 60 So.3d 1037 (Fla. 2011), when drivers or passengers of rental cars (short term, ie., for a period of days such as when on vacation) are in involved in an automobile accident, the rental car companies are no longer vicariously responsible for the negligence of the rental car driver under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine unless certain exceptions are met. In Vargas, Enterprise Leasing Company leased a vehicle to a person for less than one year (ie., a short term car rental), who ended up getting into a motor vehicle accident by rear ending another vehicle.  The other injured driver would end up bringing a lawsuit against Enterprise, claiming that the company was vicariously liable as the owner of the motor vehicle pursuant to section 324.021(9)(b)(2). The injured driver did not contend that Enterprise was negligent, that its lease of the rental car was improper, or that Enterprise Leasing was in any way at fault for the motor vehicle accident.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that 49 U.S.C. § 30106 (ie., the Graves Amendment), preempted section 324.021(9)(b)(2) of the Florida Statutes, involving short term leases of motor vehicles.  The Federal Graves Amendment states the following:

§ 30106. Rented or leased motor vehicle safety and responsibility:

(a) In general.—An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if—

(1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and

(2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).

(b) Financial responsibility laws.—Nothing in this section supersedes the law of any State or political subdivision thereof—

(1) imposing financial responsibility or insurance standards on the owner of a motor vehicle for the privilege of registering and operating a motor vehicle; or

(2) imposing liability on business entities engaged in the trade or business*1040 of renting or leasing motor vehicles for failure to meet the financial responsibility or liability insurance requirements under State law.

49 U.S.C. § 30106 (2006).

As such, because of the Federal Graves Amendment, rental car companies will have no liability when it comes to Florida rental car accident lawsuits, simply by way of their ownership of the rental car at issue.  The only way rental car companies will potentially have some responsibility for rental cars involved in Florida traffic accidents, is when there is some other negligence or criminal wrongdoing found on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).  What this means, is that the injured driver or passenger that sues a rental car company must allege and prove some form of negligence on their behalf (such as failure to maintain the tires, engine, mirrors or some other portion of the car  – ie., maintenance issues), or some form of criminal conduct on behalf of the rental car company.

It should be noted that the Florida Supreme Court has also exempted a “long term lessor” from liability arising out of their ownership of the leased vehicle that was involved in a Florida car accident. In the case of Rosado v. DaimlerChrysler Financial Services Trust, 112 So.3d 1165 (Fla. 2013), a law firm had secured a four year lease from DaimlerChrysler, wherein the driver of the leased vehicle crossed a median on a Florida highway and struck another vehicle.  The injured motorist thus brought a lawsuit against multiple parties, including DaimlerChrysler as the vehicle owner, claiming that because DaimlerChrysler had failed to comply with the insurance requirements of section 324.021(9)(b)(1), Florida Statutes (2002), DaimlerChrysler was vicariously liable for the leased car driver’s negligent operation of the car under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine.  The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a long term lessor was exempt from liability solely as the owner of the leased vehicle, per the Graves Amendment.  The insurance issue raised by the injured driver was not addressed by the Supreme Court given that it was not preserved for appeal.

FLORIDA DRIVERS OF RENTAL CARS SHOULD PURCHASE UNINSURED (UM) AND/OR UNDERINSURED (UIM) MOTORIST INSURANCE FROM THE CAR RENTAL COMPANY: because the rental car companies are essentially immune from suit in the above referenced situations, and because under Florida law operators of cars and trucks are only required to have $10,000 in PIP insurance and $10,000 in property damage liability insurance (bodily injury liability insurance is optional, especially for motorcycles), it is of prime importance for renters of rental cars to purchase Supplemental Liability Insurance in order to provide them with Florida UM and UIM coverage — this can provide one with another source of benefits (typically will be $1,000,000 in excess UM/UIM insurance coverage) when the adverse owner and/or operator who was in the traffic accident or crash with you, has no insurance or their limits are too low (drivers and owners typically only have $10,000 in bodily injury liability limits).

This rental car supplemental liability insurance can provide medical benefits and compensation for pain and suffering in case one suffers catastrophic injuries such as an amputation, brain injury (including traumatic brain injury – TBI), head injury (concussion), back injury (lumbar or thoracic disc tears, bulges or herniations), shoulder injury (torn labrum, tendons, ligaments or rotator cuff), neck injury (whiplash, cervical disc tears, bulges or herniations), chest injury (bruised or fractured sternum), face injury (fractured cheek or orbital bones), degloving injury, paralysis (quadriplegic, paraplegic or other forms of spinal cord injuries), burn injury, road rash, or severely broken legs, arms, feet, elbows, wrists, hips (pelvis), knees, ankles or vertebrae (typically requiring surgeries with implantation of hardware). For an extensive discussion on Florida Uninsured and/or Underinsured Motorist Insurance Coverage, see my previous article.

Moral of the Story: as you can see, whether you are a driver or passenger of a rental car (or are a pedestrian or bicyclist struck by a rental car, or riding on a moped, scooter or motorcycle struck by a rental car) and are injured in a rental car traffic accident on Florida roads within Coral Springs, Cooper City, Hallandale, Boca Raton, Homestead, West Kendall, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Key Biscayne, Weston, Pompano Beach, Tamarac, Wilton Manners, Hialeah, Naples, Fort Myers, Stuart, Martin or another area within Miami-Dade, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach or the Florida Keys, know that unless you can show some form of negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner), the rental car or leasing company (whether a short or long term lease or rental) will be immune from liability (simply as the owner) in a Florida rental car traffic accident, for which a Florida personal injury attorney’s lawsuit against a rental car company will be dismissed.

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