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State Supreme Courty finds estranged spouse liable in car death

Published Apr. 11, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — A man whose ex-wife had a car in both their names is still liable after she struck and killed a man with the vehicle in 2005, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Robert Christensen and his ex-wife Mary Taylor-Christensen were no longer living together, he didn't have a set of keys to the PT Cruiser and he didn't have access to the garage where she kept it. He never even saw a copy of the title because it was mailed to Taylor-Christensen's home. He did drive it once — from Taylor-Christensen's home to a carwash the day after he bought it for her during their divorce proceedings.

Then nearly two years later she struck and killed Thomas Bowen while driving drunk on Interstate 95. Bowen was changing his tire on the side of the road. Bowen's widow sued both of them and a jury originally found Christensen wasn't liable for the death caused by his ex-wife. The Supreme Court ruled that was a mistake.

Whether he used the car or not, Christensen still had the legal right to drive it or to sell it because he still had the benefits of ownership, the court wrote. And the law says a vehicle's owner shares responsibility of damage, injury or death is caused by another driver.

"When two individuals submit an application for joint ownership, each co-owner commits himself or herself to the judgment of the other and is subject to vicarious liability for the other's negligent use of the vehicle. Should a titleholder never intend to use a vehicle and wish to avoid vicarious liability, then the titleholder must divest himself or herself of any interest in the vehicle," the court wrote.

Christensen said the car was supposed to be a gift for Taylor-Christensen and that he never intended to use it. That doesn't matter, the court said. He was still legally an owner and he showed no evidence that he tried to legally give up that right.

"To divest himself of his co-ownership interest, and relieve himself from the possibility of vicarious liability, Christensen should have transferred his interest at some point after the purchase of the vehicle," the court wrote. "Christensen's non-use of the vehicle does not demonstrate that he transferred his interest in the vehicle to Taylor-Christensen."