Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

In filing for a divorce in Brooklyn, many couples weigh important issues such as child custody, division of property and how to divvy up debts.

However, it’s also important to have a divorce attorney review your insurance situation to see whether policy updates are appropriate. This goes for health insurance, but also life insurance, property insurance and auto insurance. It’s also important to review all property that is legally in each party’s name, as it could impact future liability for that property. A case recently before the Florida Supreme Court reveals what can happen when these important steps aren’t taken.

In Christensen v. Bowen, the court ruled that an ex-husband could he held vicariously liable for the negligence of his ex-wife, who had caused a fatal crash, simply by virtue of the fact that his name remained on the title of the vehicle. The court found that this was true even though he’d had no control over the vehicle since he had first purchased it for his then-wife as a gift several years earlier. He never drove it, didn’t have a key, didn’t have access to the garage where it was kept and didn’t live with his ex.

While statutes regarding vicarious liability vary from state-to-state, the general principle of respondeat superior is that a third party can be held liable for the actions of another when he or she had the right, ability or duty to control the activities of the violator.

In this case, the ex-wife was involved in a deadly crash while driving a vehicle that, according to the title, was co-owned by her ex-husband.

The widow of the driver who was killed filed a personal injury lawsuit against not only the driver, but also her ex-husband on the grounds of vicarious liability. The case went to trial and the jury determined that while the former husband’s name was on the title, he had no beneficial control over the car, and therefore wasn’t liable.

However, the widow appealed, and the appellate court reversed the findings of the lower court on the grounds that the ex-husband did have beneficial ownership of the car in terms of property rights.

The general theory is that as a joint owner of that vehicle, he had the legal right to take possession of the car and could have potentially prevented his ex-wife from using the car, if he so chose, and therefore shielded himself from liability. However, neither the district court nor the state supreme court, which affirmed that ruling, addressed the fact that the wife too had an equal right to possess the vehicle. So it’s unclear how the ex-husband could have asserted a superior legal right.

The far easier option would have been to have his name removed from the title as co-owner before the pair finalized the divorce. The fact that he did not is likely going to place him in a great deal of financial trouble, particularly because the vicarious liability claim isn’t likely to be covered under any existing insurance policy.

That is, he probably didn’t pay for an insurance policy on a car that he owned, but for all intents and purposes belonged to his ex. Further, her insurance firm probably wouldn’t cover him as an insured because the two are no longer legally related or household residents. That means he could be paying for the judgment out-of-pocket – and personal injury verdicts are generally not dischargable even in a bankruptcy.

Having such matters handled at the time a divorce is finalized can save those dissolving their marriage a great deal of heartache in the future.

Contact our Brooklyn divorce attorneys at (718) 864-2011.