A Naples valet company avoided liability in a wrongful-death action filed after a fatal crash because the appellate court found that valet companies must return vehicles in their possession to rightful owners — even those who are visibly intoxicated.

Michael Price Jr. turned his car over to Marino Parking Systems Inc. for valet parking at Sway Lounge. Price and Nicole Weber, his passenger, never made it home that night.

When Price left the Naples nightclub, he was obviously drunk.

But Price’s noticeable intoxication didn’t stop Marino Parking attendants from returning his car and handing over the keys. After driving away from the club, Price was in an accident that killed Weber.

Weber’s estate sued the valet service and nightclub for wrongful death under the theory of negligent entrustment — one may be held liable for negligence by providing someone with a dangerous instrumentality and that person injured a third person with that instrument. The estate argued that the valet service breached a duty it owed Weber when the attendants allowed Price to get behind the wheel.

Marino Parking moved to dismiss, contending that no such duty exists under Florida law. The trial court agreed and relied on a strikingly similar Second DCA decision from 1990.

The estate countered that a 1997 Florida Supreme Court decision was controlling. The plaintiff in that case dodged dismissal under the theory that a retailer negligently entrusted a gun, an even more obvious dangerous instrumentality than a car, to an intoxicated buyer.

On appeal, the Second DCA found two reasons to affirm because the definition of negligent entrustment adopted by the Supreme Court limits its application to bailors — those who hand over personal property, such as sellers, lessors, donors and lenders.

Unfortunately for Weber’s estate, although valet companies and vehicle owners enter into a bailment — when one places personal property in the custody and control of another — the roles are flipped. Price was the one who delivered his car to Marino Parking for valet parking service, making Price the bailor.

And bailees — the parking attendants — lack a superior right to control the property, an essential element to a negligence action predicated on negligent entrustment.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Stevan T. Northcutt explained the significance of the distinction. "[H]ere, the valet service did not have a superior right to Price’s car. To the contrary, Marino Parking could have been found liable for conversion had it failed to return the car."

In other words, when Price asked for his keys to be returned, had Marino Parking refused, the valet company would have been asserting a right of dominion over the car inconsistent with Price’s right to possession.

The trial court was wrong on an alternative basis for dismissal, however. The trial court concluded that Florida’s dram shop statute limited the club’s liability.

Under the statute, those who do sell or furnish alcoholic beverages have limited liability for damages unless they served a minor or a person known to be habitually addicted to alcohol. But the valet company never sold Price a drink.

The dram shop statute, however, may be applicable to the estate’s action against Sway Lounge, which remains pending.