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Are My Assets in Danger if My Spouse Gets in a Car Accident?
Spouses going through a divorce in Florida may have several issues that they are concerned about as they attempt to negotiate a settlement. One of the more aggressively contested divorce issues is property division. Each spouse wants to ensure that they receive the property they believe to be rightfully their own.
With that in mind, what happens when your spouse causes a car accident during your divorce proceeding? Marital property is still jointly titled, including the vehicle your spouse was driving at the time of the accident. Could the accident victim come after your share of marital property or property that you own separately from your spouse?
Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Can Help Identify Who Is Liable
Many Floridians are not familiar with the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine (DID), but they quickly learn about it if someone is driving a car that they own and that person causes an accident. The doctrine is based in common law and states that an owner of an inherently dangerous tool is responsible for any damages caused by the operation of that tool.
In 1920, the Florida Supreme Court expanded the rule to include motor vehicles in the case of Southern Cotton Oil vs. Anderson. The court held that anyone who has an ownership interest in a vehicle could be held liable for damages sustained by a third party.
To be held liable for damages, the person must have an “identifiable property interest” in the instrument. According to Michele Mirman, a personal injury lawyer licensed in Florida and New York, “Courts have found that a person who is listed on the title the vehicle has an identifiable property interest.” She adds, “Therefore, anyone listed on the title to the vehicle could be personally liable for damages even though the person was not driving the vehicle.”
You Could Be Liable If the Car Is Jointly Titled
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a husband who purchased a vehicle for his wife and titled the vehicle jointly could be held liable for an accident caused by the wife. The fact that the parties were involved in a dissolution of marriage at the time he titled the car was not relevant.
Additionally, the court held that the fact that the husband did not have control over the vehicle or access to the vehicle was not relevant. The fact that his name appeared on the title was sufficient to satisfy the requirements under the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine.
There are a few exceptions to the rule. For example, you are not responsible if your mechanic drives your vehicle and causes an accident. Likewise, a car rental agency is not responsible for accidents caused by someone who is renting a vehicle from the agency.
If your car is stolen, you cannot be held liable for damages because you did not grant permission to the person to drive your vehicle. Also, if you sell your vehicle, you may not be responsible for a car accident if the crash occurs before you have a reasonable opportunity to change the title.
Therefore, if your name is on the title of the vehicle with your spouse, your property could be at risk if your spouse causes an accident. Under Florida’s personal injury laws, the accident victim could sue you for damages caused by the accident.
Jointly Held Property Could be at Risk
Even if you are not on the title to the vehicle, any property that you hold jointly with your spouse could be at risk. If you are not responsible for the accident, your interest in the property should be protected.
However, your spouse’s interest may not be protected. If the accident victim obtains a judgment against your spouse, your spouse’s property could be used to satisfy the judgment. The accident victim could petition the court to liquidate the property to obtain your spouse’s interest in the property.
How can You Protect Yourself and Your Property?
Try to settle the property division portion of your divorce case as soon as possible. If your vehicles are jointly titled, immediately remove your name from the title to any vehicle awarded to your spouse. Make sure to remove your spouse’s name from any property you receive in the divorce.
Separate financial accounts as soon as possible. Money in joint financial accounts is considered the property of either spouse. Therefore, if an accident victim obtains a judgment against your spouse, funds in jointly held financial accounts could be at risk.
Work with your divorce lawyer to ensure that all property is separated legally as quickly as possible when the divorce is final. The only way to protect your assets is to ensure that you convert marital property into separate property as soon as possible. If your spouse causes an accident, the victim should not be able to attach your separate property providing you removed your name from the car title before the accident occurred.