Enterprise not vicariously liable for crash

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 29, 2011, 1:43pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The Florida Supreme Court has upheld a trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of rental car company Enterprise.

The Court, in its April 21 opinion, reviewed the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in the case Vargas v. Enterprise Leasing Co.

Enterprise had leased a vehicle to Elizabeth Price for a period of less than one year. On Feb. 12, 2006, Price's son, Jimmy Middleton, crashed the car into the rear end of another car driven by Rafael Vargas. Vargas filed suit against Price, Middleton and Enterprise.

The only count of the complaint directed at Enterprise claimed that the company was "vicariously liable" as the owner of the vehicle, pursuant to section 324.021(9)(b)2 of Florida statute. Vargas did not contend that Enterprise was negligent, that its lease of a vehicle to Price was improper, or that it was in any way at fault for the accident.

Enterprise filed an amended answer, asserting that pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30106, or the Graves Amendment, it had no liability.

The federal Graves Amendment, which was enacted in 2005, states, in part: "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."

The trial court granted Enterprise's motion for summary judgment, ruling that the Graves Amendment preempted section 324.021(9)(b)2. Vargas filed a notice of appeal.

The district court of appeal, in a 6-4 decision, affirmed the trial court's ruling and certified the following question to the state's high court: Does the Graves Amendment preempt section 324.021(9)(b)2?

The Court, in its 11-page ruling, said the amendment does preempt that section of state statute. Justice James E. C. Perry wrote the Court's opinion.

The justices point to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"The savings clause of the Graves Amendment clarifies that the federal law does not supersede state laws that impose 'financial responsibility or insurance standards on the owner of a motor vehicle for the privilege of registering and operating a motor vehicle' or that impose 'liability on business entities engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles for failure to meet the financial responsibility or liability insurance requirements under State law,'" the Court wrote.

"These provisions clarify that although states may not impose vicarious liability on rental car companies for the negligence of their lessees, they may still require insurance or its equivalent as a condition of licensing or registration (under provision (a) of the savings clause) and may enforce the requirement of insurance or its equivalent by suspending licenses or registrations, or imposing other penalties, for the failure to meet such requirements (under provision (b) of the savings clause)."

Section 324.021(9)(b)2 does not require insurance or its equivalent as a condition of licensing or registration, the Court said. It also does not require an owner/lessor to meet any financial responsibility or liability insurance requirements under state law, and the liability contemplated does not flow from any failure to meet such requirements, it said.

"Rather, as explained above, section 324.021(9)(b)2 preserves Florida common law vicarious liability by deeming short-term (less than one year) lessors to be 'owners' for vicarious liability purposes, while limiting their exposure to damages for such claims. Therefore, it conflicts with and is thus preempted by the Graves Amendment," the Court wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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