Florida Supreme Court Finds Man Liable For Drunk Driving Death Caused by Ex-Wife

Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins

In 2005, Mary Taylor-Christensen was driving the PT Cruiser her ex-husband bought her during their divorce proceedings when she hit and killed a man changing a tire on the side of the road on I-95 in Cocoa.  Taylor-Christensen fled the scene of the accident and was followed by a witness who cornered her in a parking lot where she was arrested.  Police found that Taylor-Christensen had a BAC of .235 and also had Xanax in her system.  She was found guilty of DUI Manslaughter in 2008 and was sentenced to 11 ½ years in prison.

Along with the criminal action against Taylor-Christensen there was a civil suit by the victim’s family for the death against both Mary Taylor-Christensen and her ex-husband Robert Christensen.  Robert Christensen bought the car that Mary Taylor-Christensen was driving the night of the crash and was still on the title with her.  He claimed that he only drove the car one time and that it was a gift to Mary Taylor-Christensen.  Therefore, he argued, he was not the owner, despite what the title said.  Because of this, he claimed he wasn’t liable for the victim’s injuries and a jury initially agreed.

The Florida Supreme Court decided otherwise on April 10, finding that Florida law made it pretty clear that if some one is on the title to a car, they make themselves liable for damages caused by someone driving that car.   The Supreme Court specifically found that if two people own a car together that they are agreeing to be held jointly liable for damages caused when the other person is driving.  As for Robert Christensen’s claim that he never drove the car and therefore should not be held liable, the Supreme Court said that wasn’t enough.  As far as Florida law is concerned, if Christensen was on the title, he was liable for the victim’s death that was caused by his ex-wife.  The court specifically said that if he wanted to be protected from liability he had plenty of opportunity to take himself off the title between when he bought the car and the accident.

Under Florida law, if a car owner (i.e. the person on the title) voluntarily lets a person use their car and that person acts negligently, causing damage, the car owner is liable.  This applies to all car owners with the exception of car rental companies.  What this means is that if you loan a car to a friend or family member and they hurt someone in an accident through being reckless or negligent, you could be financially responsible.  This would be the case even if you did not give the person you are loaning the car to permission to drive in a certain way, such as speeding or driving drunk.  There are some exceptions to this, mainly that you cannot be held liable if someone steals your car and gets in to an accident with it.  What the Supreme Court found in Christensen’s case is that, even if someone does not consider themselves an owner of a car because it is used exclusively by someone else on the title, that they could still be liable for injuries caused by the other owner.