Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 88-02372

CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)
Citation556 So.2d 431
Docket NumberNo. 88-02372,88-02372
Parties15 Fla. L. Weekly D81 Robert Thomas KRAEMER, Jr., as Personal Representative of the Estate of Marguerite Voorhees Kraemer, Deceased, and Robert Thomas Kraemer, Jr., individually, Appellant, v. GENERAL MOTORS ACCEPTANCE CORPORATION, Appellee.
Decision Date27 December 1989

Thomas P. Fox, Tampa, and Bard D. Rockenbach and David J. Abbey of Fox & Grove, Chartered, St. Petersburg, for appellant.

Larry I. Gramovot of Stuart, Gramovot & Strickland, P.A., Tampa, for appellee.

Jeffrey B. Shapiro and Judy D. Shapiro of Herzfeld and Rubin, Miami, amicus curiae, Florida Motor Vehicle Leasing Group.

CAMPBELL, Chief Judge.

Appellant, Robert Thomas Kraemer, Jr., challenges a final summary judgment in favor of appellee, General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), finding that GMAC, the record title owner of a vehicle leased to Michael Anthony Green, was not the beneficial owner of that leased vehicle so as to impose liability upon appellee under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine created in Anderson v. Southern Cotton Oil Co., 73 Fla. 432, 74 So. 975 (1917) (Anderson I ) and Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629 (1920) (Anderson II ). We agree and affirm.

In April of 1986, Michael Anthony Green entered a contract with appellee GMAC to lease a 1987 Nissan Maxima from GMAC. The lease was to be handled through United Leasing in Tampa. The automobile was bought through and delivered by Jake Sutherlin Oldsmobile--Nissan--Cadillac. According to the lease agreement, the application for the certificate of title and the certificate of registration, GMAC had purchased the automobile from Jake Sutherlin and was the owner of record while Jake Sutherlin was an agent of GMAC. This is known as a closed end vehicle lease agreement.

The terms of the lease are as follows: Michael Green and his father, William Green, would make forty-eight monthly payments, at the end of which time the Greens, as lessees, would have the option to purchase the automobile for its fair market value. The lessees could exercise their ownership option only at the natural termination of the contract or on "early termination." In addition, the lessees were responsible for all maintenance, for obtaining the tag and registration and for paying all taxes. The lessees were also to obtain liability insurance and were the beneficiaries of the manufacturer's original warranty. They were free to use the automobile at will so long as it was not removed from the United States or Canada.

A little over a year after the lease was executed, on May 6, 1987, Calvin Gary, an acquaintance of Michael Green, asked to borrow the automobile to go to the store. Green agreed, but Gary never returned the car. Green ultimately reported it stolen. While using the car, Gary was involved in an automobile accident on May 7, 1987, killing appellant Kraemer's deceased, Marguerite Voorhees Kraemer.

Lessees had not exercised their option to purchase before the fatal collision. To the contrary, at the time of the collision, Michael Green was in default for his failure to obtain insurance and his failure to pay monthly payments. Under the contract, he could not exercise his option to purchase.

GMAC was advised that appellant considered GMAC liable for his deceased's death and would make a wrongful death claim against GMAC. GMAC filed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking a declaration that GMAC was not liable for Marguerite Voorhees Kraemer's death because GMAC did not have beneficial ownership of the car. That complaint also contained a request for reformation of an insurance policy that is not at issue on appeal. Appellant Kraemer filed an answer, defenses and a counterclaim against GMAC, Green and Gary, seeking money damages from GMAC for Gary's negligence on the basis that GMAC owned the vehicle. GMAC filed an answer and a counterclaim denying beneficial ownership.

GMAC filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that it was not the beneficial owner and, therefore, could not be liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. The motion was supported by the affidavit of Wayne Boyd, administrative representative for GMAC. In his affidavit, Boyd asserted that no one at GMAC had ever modified or handled the car. He also asserted that the purchase was arranged by Jake Sutherlin and the lease was arranged by United Leasing of Tampa. He further asserted that no GMAC employee had ever controlled the car and that GMAC had only financed the transaction. It had never exercised a beneficial control or ownership. Finally, Boyd asserted that at the end of the four-year lease, Green could keep the car by paying the fair market value.

In a deposition, Green testified that he never went to GMAC's offices and, before he possessed the car, never spoke to anyone from GMAC. He further testified that the tag and registration were paid by his father, not by GMAC. He stated that no one from GMAC ever told him what to do with the car. Further, there was no difference between his day-to-day operation of the leased car and a car that he subsequently purchased on a conditional sales contract.

The lease provides that upon default, GMAC had the power and right to retake possession. Green was in default on May 7, 1987, the date of the collision, for failure to pay his monthly rental and failure to obtain insurance. The lease also provides that GMAC is the owner and that Green has no claim to ownership and gives GMAC the right to inspect the car.

The trial court entered final summary judgment in favor of GMAC, finding that there were no disputed issues of material fact and that GMAC was not the beneficial owner of the vehicle.

Appellant argues that, as the record title owner of the car that caused the death, GMAC is liable. Appellant contends that the key element is ownership and relies on cases subsequent to Anderson I and Anderson II that have held that the owner of a vehicle who rents or leases it to another is liable for the injuries caused by its operation unless it is stolen from the lessee. Allstate Insurance Co. v. Executive Car and Truck Leasing, Inc., 494 So.2d 487 (Fla.1986); Allstate Insurance Co. v. Fowler, 480 So.2d 1287 (Fla.1985); Susco Car Rental System of Florida v. Leonard, 112 So.2d 832 (Fla.1959); Tribbitt v. Crown Contractors, Inc., 513 So.2d 1084 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987).

GMAC, on the other hand, argues that under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, since GMAC had relinquished beneficial ownership to Green, GMAC was not the "owner" and was not liable.

The Anderson I case imposed liability upon the owner based largely on the fact that the traffic statutes placed various duties on "owners." Similar Florida Statutes now define the term "owner" to include conditional vendees and lessees. See §§ 316.003(26) and 324.021(9), Fla.Stat. (1985). In Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc., 81 So.2d 635 (Fla.1955), the court found that although a contract for sale of the vehicle was not executed until the day after the accident, "the definite intention existed on the part of [the buyer] and [the seller's] representative to make immediate transfer of the beneficial ownership of the vehicle to [the buyer] ..." Palmer, 81 So.2d at 636.

The determinative factor in the Palmer exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine was the fact that the buyer had beneficial ownership of the automobile, notwithstanding the fact that the seller held legal title. See also Hicks v. Land, 117 So.2d 11 (Fla. 1st DCA), cert. denied, 120 So.2d 617 (Fla.1960).

While this issue has not been squarely addressed in Florida, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in Lee v. Ford Motor Co., 595 F.Supp. 1114 (D.C.1984), decided this very issue. There, when dealing with precisely the same issue as is involved here, the federal district court ruled that liability attached to the beneficial owner, the long-term lessee, rather than to the long-term lessor who held title to the vehicle in question. See also Moore v. Ford Motor Credit Co., 166 Mich.App. 100, 420 N.W.2d 577 (1988). We do not deem it necessary to rely upon Florida's traffic regulation statutes and financial responsibility laws to conclude that the record title holder as lessor under a long-term lease is not liable for the negligence of the lessee under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

Moreover, the Florida Supreme Court has recognized another exception to the dangerous instrumentality doctrine where the owner of the motor vehicle entrusts that vehicle to a repairman or serviceman, so long as the owner does not exercise control over the injury causing operation of the vehicle during the servicing and is not otherwise negligent. Castillo v. Bickley, 363...

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  • Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 92-00315
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • 30 Diciembre 1992
    ...SECTION AND THAT REQUIRED COVERAGE HAS BEEN OBTAINED BY THE LESSOR? 6 --------------- 1 See Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 556 So.2d 431 (Fla. 2d DCA 2 The record does not disclose the reason why the policy issued contained limits lower than those certified by Nationwide in the......
  • Berwald v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 90-128
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    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • 6 Diciembre 1990
    ...been upheld as constitutional. Perry v. GMAC, 549 So.2d 680 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), rev. denied, 558 So.2d 18 (Fla.1990); Kraemer v. GMAC, 556 So.2d 431 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), jurisdiction accepted, 564 So.2d 487 (Fla.1990); Folmar v. Young, 560 So.2d 798 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990); Tsiknakis v. Volvo Fi......
  • Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 75580
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Florida
    • 20 Diciembre 1990
    ...Miami, amicus curiae for Florida Motor Vehicle Leasing Group. GRIMES, Justice. We review Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 556 So.2d 431 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), because of its conflict with Susco Car Rental System v. Leonard, 112 So.2d 832 (Fla.1959), and Lynch v. Walker, 159 Fla. 188......
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    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • 27 Diciembre 1990
    ...560 So.2d 798 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990); Raynor v. De La Nuez, 558 So.2d 141 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990); Kraemer v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 556 So.2d 431 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), juris. accepted, 564 So.2d 487 (Fla.1990); Perry v. G.M.A.C. Leasing Corp., 549 So.2d 680 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), rev. denied,......
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