Vreeland v. Ferrer

Decision Date13 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. SC10–694.,SC10–694.
Citation71 So.3d 70
PartiesJohn K. VREELAND, etc., Petitioner,v.Danny FERRER, etc., et al., Respondents.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Joel D. Eaton of Podhurst Orseck, P.A., Miami, FL, and the Law Firm of Wagner, Vaughan and McLaughlin, P.A., Tampa, FL, for Petitioner.Shelley H. Leinicke of Wicker, Smith, O'Hara, McCoy and Ford, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, FL, for Respondent.

LEWIS, J.

Petitioner John K. Vreeland seeks review of the decision of the Second District Court of Appeal in Vreeland v. Ferrer, 28 So.3d 906 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010), on the basis of express and direct conflict with the decision of this Court in Orefice v. Albert, 237 So.2d 142 (Fla.1970). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Danny Ferrer entered into an agreement to lease an airplane from Aerolease of America, Inc. (Aerolease) for a period of one year. On January 14, 2005, after taking off from an airport in Lakeland, Florida, the plane crashed. The pilot, Donald Palas, and his passenger, Jose Martinez, were killed in the crash. John Vreeland, in his capacity as administrator ad litem and personal representative of the Martinez estate, filed a wrongful death action against Aerolease. 1 In support of the action, Vreeland first contended that Aerolease, as owner of the aircraft, was liable and responsible for the negligence of Palas in the operation and inspection of the aircraft. Second, Vreeland asserted that prior to the transfer of the aircraft to Ferrer, Aerolease negligently performed inspections and maintenance on the aircraft such that it was in a defective condition, which directly contributed to the crash. Lastly, Vreeland claimed that Aerolease published false information concerning the condition of the aircraft, which Ferrer relied upon. According to Vreeland, the actual condition of the aircraft significantly contributed to the crash.

Aerolease moved for summary final judgment, contending that a provision of federal law, 49 U.S.C. § 44112 (1994), preempted Florida law. Section 44112, titled “Limitation of Liability,” provides, in pertinent part:

(b) Liability.—A lessor, owner, or secured party is liable for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage on land or water only when a civil aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller is in the actual possession or control of the lessor, owner, or secured party, and the personal injury, death, or property loss or damage occurs because of—

(1) the aircraft, engine, or propeller; or

(2) the flight of, or an object falling from, the aircraft, engine, or propeller.

49 U.S.C. § 44112 (1994). The trial court held a hearing and, on September 25, 2007, entered a summary final judgment in favor of Aerolease. The trial court noted that under Florida's “dangerous instrumentality” doctrine, the owner or lessor of an aircraft is vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of a pilot. However, the court concluded that 49 U.S.C. § 44112 preempted Florida law and, because Aerolease was not in actual possession or control of the aircraft at the time of the crash, the company was not responsible under the provisions of the federal statute.

Vreeland filed a motion for reconsideration, asserting that the trial court's decision on vicarious liability effectively overruled the 1970 decision of the Florida Supreme Court in Orefice v. Albert, 237 So.2d 142 (Fla.1970). In Orefice, the Court held that an airplane was a dangerous instrumentality, and a wrongful death action could properly proceed against the co-owner of an airplane on the basis of vicarious liability. See 237 So.2d at 145–46. Vreeland also asserted that Aerolease was in possession and control of the aircraft at the time of the alleged negligent maintenance and inspection and, therefore, federal law did not preempt this claim. The trial court denied reconsideration.

On appeal, the Second District affirmed the decision of the trial court to the extent it held that the vicarious liability claim was preempted by federal law, but reversed the entry of the summary final judgment on the claim of negligent maintenance and inspection. See Vreeland v. Ferrer, 28 So.3d 906, 912–13 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).

With regard to vicarious liability, the Second District examined the legislative history of the statutory predecessors to 49 U.S.C. § 44112, and it concluded that the provision was enacted to shield an owner or lessor of a civil aircraft from vicarious liability under state law whenever the aircraft is not under his or her control. See 28 So.3d at 909. The Second District distinguished this Court's decision in Orefice on two bases. First, the district court reasoned that the 1970 decision did not mention a predecessor statute to section 44112 that was in effect at the time that decision was issued. See id. at 912. The absence of discussion concerning that predecessor statute, section 1404, in Orefice led the district court below to conclude that the parties failed to raise the issue of preemption before the Florida Supreme Court or the lower courts in Orefice. See id. Second, the district court explained:

The Orefice court's ruling that the dangerous instrumentality law imposed vicarious liability on owners of aircraft was based in part on its observation that Chapter 330, Florida Statutes (1970), reflected “a specific policy by the State of Florida to license and otherwise see after aircraft safety.” Orefice, 237 So.2d at 145. The Florida statutes addressing aircraft safety have since been repealed.

Id.

With regard to the negligent inspection and maintenance claim, however, the Second District reversed the entry of the summary final judgment. See id. at 913. The court below was of the opinion that the purpose of section 44112 was to shield an owner or lessor from the negligence of another when the aircraft is not in the possession or control of the owner or lessor. See id. The statute was not intended to shield owners or lessors from negligence while in control or possession of the aircraft. See id. The district court concluded that the claim that Aerolease was negligent with regard to maintenance and inspection while the aircraft was in its possession was not preempted by federal law and, therefore, the trial court erred when it entered summary final judgment on this claim. See id.

Vreeland filed a petition with this Court seeking review of the Second District's decision on the basis that it expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of this Court in Orefice, and we accepted review.

ANALYSIS

Whether state law is preempted by federal law is a pure question of law that is subject to de novo review. See Talbott v. American Isuzu Motors, Inc., 934 So.2d 643, 644 (Fla. 2d DCA), review denied, 946 So.2d 1071 (Fla.2006).

Florida Law—The Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine

The dangerous instrumentality doctrine has been a part of Florida common law for almost one hundred years. In 1920, the Florida Supreme Court considered whether a corporation could be held responsible for the negligence of an operator who injured another while driving an automobile owned by the corporation. See Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 80 Fla. 441, 86 So. 629, 631 (1920). In its analysis, the Court articulated what is now known as the dangerous instrumentality doctrine and concluded that the doctrine is applicable to motor vehicles:

The principles of the common law do not permit the owner of an instrumentality that is not dangerous per se, but is peculiarly dangerous in its operation, to authorize another to use such instrumentality on the public highways without imposing upon such owner liability for negligent use. The liability grows out of the obligation of the owner to have the vehicle ... properly operated when it is by his authority on the public highway.

....

An automobile being a dangerous machine, its owner should be responsible for the manner in which it is used; and his liability should extend to its use by any one with his consent. He may not deliver it over to any one he pleases and not be responsible for the consequences.

Id. at 632, 635 (quoting Anderson v. So. Cotton Oil Co., 73 Fla. 432, 74 So. 975, 978 (1917); Ingraham v. Stockamore, 63 Misc. 114, 118 N.Y.S. 399, 401 (N.Y.Sup.Ct.1909)).

In a subsequent decision, this Court held that an individual who rented vehicles as part of a business was responsible for the negligence of the driver who rented the vehicle. See Lynch v. Walker, 159 Fla. 188, 31 So.2d 268, 271 (1947). In Susco Car Rental System of Florida v. Leonard, 112 So.2d 832 (Fla.1959), this Court determined that a car rental agency was responsible under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine for the operation of a motor vehicle where the vehicle was driven by a person not named in the rental contract, even though the individual who rented the car had agreed in the contract to be the sole driver. See id. at 835 (“The fact that the owner had a private contract ... with the renter cannot make such restrictions a bar to the rights of the public. The restrictions agreed upon do not change the fact that the automobile was being used with the owner's consent.”).

Recently, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reiterated the concept and framework of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine and the purpose behind it:

The doctrine imposes strict liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle by requiring that an owner who “gives authority to another to operate the owner's vehicle, by either express or implied consent, has a nondelegable obligation to ensure that the vehicle is operated safely. Aurbach v. Gallina, 753 So.2d 60, 62 (Fla.2000). The doctrine is intended to foster greater financial responsibility to pay for injuries caused by motor vehicles because the owner is in the best position to ensure that there are adequate resources to pay for damages caused by its misuse. Id. at 62. The doctrine also serves to deter vehicle owners from entrusting their...

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