Two Sarasota, Fla., used-car dealerships and their owners must defend a suit alleging that they are legally responsible for a fatal crash caused by a hit-and-run driver, the Florida Court of Appeal has ruled.
The three-judge panel said a jury should decide whether the dealers or their companies are liable for entrusting the car to a now-missing driver allegedly responsible for Milian Medina's death in a 1996 rear-end collision.
According to the suit, Medina died after a 1992 Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Meliton Almazan smashed into her vehicle. Almazan fled the scene and hasn't been found.
The Pontiac had a temporary cardboard tag that had been issued to Yoder Auto Sales Inc., a corporation operated by Paul Yoder, the court said. However, the tag's space for the issuing dealer's name listed 'Yoder Auto Sales,' the name of an unincorporated used-car lot down the street and owned by Paul Yoder's father, Merrill Yoder.
Medina's estate sued both Yoders and their companies on a 'dangerous instrumentality' theory.
'Under the dangerous-instrumentality theory, one who permits an automobile to be used by someone else on the public highways is liable for injuries to third parties caused by the authorized user's negligence,' the appeals court said.
The defendants denied owning the Pontiac or permitting Almazan to use it. Merrill Yoder also testified he sold the car to someone else in 1994.
Manatee County Circuit Judge Robert Boylston dismissed the case. However, the Court of Appeal reinstated the suit, saying a trial is necessary to determine who owned the car at the time of the crash and whether Almazan was authorized to use it.
The court also said the estate can conduct new pretrial depositions of the Yoders. Although they denied ownership, there was evidence that Merrill Yoder had repurchased the car in April 1996 and that it had been seen on both lots a number of times between then and the crash five months later.
There also was evidence that both Yoders allowed people to drive the cars on their lots, including the Pontiac, using temporary tags. One of those men allegedly fit Almazan's description.
In addition, 'the tag had obviously been altered,' said the estate's lawyer, John Beranek of Tallahassee.
Almazan also is named as a defendant but couldn't be found to serve legal papers, Beranek said.
Thomas Whitaker Jr., a Bradenton lawyer representing Paul Yoder and the corporation, said his clients will not appeal further.