Can an Estate be Sued if Someone Driving the Decedent’s Car gets in an Accident?

Posted on March 15, 2017

In Depriest v. Greeson, No. 1D16-0807, 2017 WL 672155 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017), a motorist, who was injured in vehicular accident, brought action against decedent’s estate, alleging that estate was vicariously liable for damages that the decedent’s adult child allegedly caused while driving the decedent’s car.

Decedent and his wife resided with the Decedent’s adult daughter in Milton, Florida. The decedent’s car and keys were kept at his daughter’s house, and she occasionally drove his car with his permission. Decedent’s Will made no specific bequests of the car, and named his daughter and stepson as equal co-beneficiaries under the residuary clause. There is no evidence that Decedent ever gave his daughter permission to continue using his car after his death. One month after the Decedent had died, the daughter was driving his car and came upon the scene of a recent accident involving the appellants in this case, Samuel Depriest and his grandmother. In a separate action, Mr. Depriest was charged with vehicular homicide because of the head-on collision that occurred when he was driving into oncoming traffic.  Decedent’s daughter collided with Mr. Depriest’s disabled car, allegedly causing additional damage to his car.

Originally, Appellants sued Decedent as owner of the car, before realizing he had died. Appellants amended their complaint, now suing Decedent’s estate in addition to the Decedent’s daughter. Appellants alleged the estate was vicariously liable for damages caused by the daughter’s use of the Decedent’s car because the estate held legal title to the car. Additionally, Appellants alleged the personal representative had prior knowledge of the daughter’s use of the car, and thereby had impliedly consented to the daughter’s use of the car by failing to take affirmative action preventing her from using the car. Appellants relied on the dangerous instrumentality doctrine as their form of vicarious liability.

The Decedent’s Will nominated his stepson, who resided in South Carolina, as personal representative.  When the stepson was in Florida for the funeral, he gathered the title to the car and other papers required to open the Decedent’s probate case and took it to a local Florida probate attorney.  There is no evidence the stepson knew that Decedent’s daughter had previously used or presently intended to use Decedent’s car. He testified that he did not instruct her not to use the car, because he did not know she had ever used it and would not have thought Decedent would have ever given her permission to use it. Appellants did not dispute this evidence.

The day after the accident occurred the Decedent’s daughter called the stepson and informed him about the accident. Decedent’s probate case was filed four days after the accident, and eighteen days later, the letters of administration were issued in which the stepson was appointed personal representative. The car insurance company, totaled it, and payed the proceeds of the policy to the estate. The estate later listed the money as an asset.

Before the trial court and again on appeal, the parties disputed whether the estate owned the Decedent’s car after he died. The trial court concluded that the estate was not the title holder of the car when the accident occurred. The Appellate court does not agree that Decedent’s estate did not have any legal interest in the car at the time of the accident.

“When Decedent died, “in the twinkling of a legal eye,” the car became an asset of his estate. Sharps v. Sharps, 214 So.2d 492, 495 (Fla. 3d DCA 1968) (holding that an uncashed check payable to the decedent became an asset of his estate the instant he died, and his widow would have to prove that it was a gift to her individually in order to obtain the proceeds for herself). See also Mills v. Hamilton, 121 Fla. 435, 163 So. 857, 858 (1935) (“It is well settled that at the death of the owner of any personal property the title thereto vests in his personal representative and during the administration the personal representative is entitled to the possession of the same.”).”

Although Decedent’s car was an asset of the estate, it did not belong to anyone individually since the car was not bequeathed to anyone and Decedent’s daughter and stepson were co-beneficiaries under the residuary clause of the will.  Neither the daughter nor the stepson had any specific individual rights to the car, nor any superior right against the other to prohibit the use of the car. The car was an asset of the estate and subject to administration. Ultimate ownership cannot be determined until claims, taxes, debts, expenses of administration, and other obligations of the estate have been resolved. The car may have ended up being sold to pay the estate’s obligations, in which it no longer belonged to the estate or any beneficiary.

The Decedent’s daughter clearly had control over the keys and the car, but lacked any ownership interest in the car. Upon appointment, the stepson would have the right to control the assets of the estate.  The personal representative’s duties commence upon appointment and under the Probate Code, acts performed by the person appointed, “occurring before appointment and beneficial to the estate have the same effect as acts taken after appointment”.  The authority does not impose a statutory duty to act prior to appointment. “Richard v. Richard, 193 So.3d 964, 968–69 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) (affirming that relation-back doctrine codified in section 733.601 reflected intent to avoid imposing legal duties on personal representative prior to appointment and assumption of statutory duties). These authorities establish that a nominated or putative personal representative has the legal authority to act for the benefit of the estate prior to appointment, but is not statutorily required to do so.”

Appellants argue that Decedent’s stepson is nominated as personal representative, but not yet appointed, had the right to control Decedent’s car, and that such authority to control established both an identifiable property interest in the car and implied consent to Decedent’s daughter’s use of the car because he took the title to a probate lawyer shortly after Decedent’s death but failed to take the keys and car itself.) Although the appellate court disagrees with the trial court’s reasoning on the question of the stepson’s right to control the car, the appellate court nevertheless affirms the entry of summary judgement in favor of the estate.

NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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