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Florida's Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Not Pre-Empted by Federal Law

thefirm Sep 27, 2011

49 U.S.C. Sec. 44112 is a federal statute passed in recent years that was meant to prohibit the owner of an aircraft from being sued by passengers who get injured on the airplane simply because the owner maintains an ownership right in the aircraft itself.  The dangerous instrumentality doctrine in the State of Florida operates to make the owner of any dangerous instrumentality (i.e. cars, trucks, airplanes, boats, jet skis, golf carts, ATV's, etc.) strictly vicariously liable for any negligenc caused by the vehicle so long as the vehicle was not stolen or otherwise operated outside the scope of the owner's permission.  Thus, this has always generally meant that if you own a car and you let someone borrow your car, then you are legally responsible for any crash that the borrower causes under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.  This doctrine is supposed to prevent operators who are not as likely to have their own insurance from operating a vehicle without keeping the owner responsible for whatever damage is caused.  Hence, it appears as a matter of public policy that an owner of a vehicle that has the propensity to injure or kill others cannot escape liability simply because they let someone else drive and that someone else caused the accident.  As mentioned above, 49 U.S.C. Sec. 44112 aimed to take away that requirement that owners were always responsible for aircraft by essentially letting the owner off the hook unless the owner was essentially at the controls of the aircraft at the time of the crash.  Prior to the Florida Supreme Court's decision in Vreeland v. Ferrer, this case was heard before the Second Florida DCA in Vreeland v. Ferrer, 28 So. 3d 906 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).  The Second DCA held that Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine was pre-empted by federal law.  The Florida Supreme Court reversed and rationalized their decision on the premise that the federal law was inapplicable it only applied to injury or death occuring ont he surface of the earth.  Thus, the Florida Supreme Court held that Vreeland was different because the plaintiff died inside the aircraft rather than on the ground beneath the plane.  While there is plenty of room to argue, the Florida Supreme Court is attempting to take back an issue that has always been a state's right.  In order for Congress to pass a law such as this, Congress is supposed to have some connection to interstate commerce or some other enumerated area where Congress is permitted to pass statutes.  The federal is likely unconstitutional and violative of states' rights to begin with because the same analysis can be applied to car and truck accidents too, however, it is unlikely that the public would tolerate such a policy as they did with aircraft because so few people actually own aircraft when compared to cars and trucks.  As many people have stated before, one of the greatest threats to freedom is unenforced laws.  Thus, if Congress has the power to pre-empt aircraft owners from legal liability for injuring others in a crash (because the sometimes cross state lines), then Congress could (theoretically) have the power to pre-empt the owner of a car or truck from legal liability for the same sort of thing just because we have interstate highways.  It is my opinion that the Florida Supreme Court gets the public policy right and that 49 U.S.C. Sec. 44112 is probably unconstitutional even when applied to purely interstate trips.  If you study the law, you will likely find that there are many irrational distinctions between intrastate and interstate commerce merely for the sake of Congress having some sort of long arm jurisdiction to pass a law over it.  One should take a look at the history of our country to see that states' rights have always been at the forefront of America politics.

With all politics and political commentary aside, Moody Law assists those injured in aviation accidents.  If you or a loved one have been injured in an aviation accident, please seek the advice of a professional aviation attorney to discuss any legal rights that you or your loved one may have.  You might be suprised by what you hear.

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