The Family Purpose Doctrine: Car Accident, Your Kid, Your Problem.
As a long time car accident attorney I need you to know that if a vehicle owner loans his/her vehicle to another person who drives the vehicle and causes a crash, the owner is not responsible (though the owner’s auto insurance would likely cover the damages). Under the “Family Purpose Doctrine,” however, parents who provide a vehicle to their children can be held liable if that child uses the vehicle and causes an car accident.
The Family Purpose Doctrine subjects the vehicle owner to vicarious liability when the owner provides the vehicle for the general use by members of the family, and when the vehicle is so used by a family member for family purposes. Essentially, the driver is treated as the agent of the owner, and under agency law, the owner is liable for the actions of the “agent.”
Liability under the doctrine arises…
- when there is a head of the family,
- who maintains or furnishes a vehicle for the general use, pleasure, and convenience of the family, and
- a family member uses the vehicle with the family head’s express or implied permission for a family purpose.
In the case of Young v. Beck, the Becks provided their seventeen-year-old son, Jason, with a vehicle to go to and from school, church, and work. With permission, he could also use the vehicle for social and recreational purposes.
After Jason got into an accident, his parents specifically told him he could no longer drive around his friends or drive their girlfriends home.
About a month later, Jason’s mother gave him permission to drive the family vehicle to his friend’s house, spend the night there, and drive home the next day. She did not give him permission to use the vehicle for any other purpose. Unfortunately, that night Jason drove around with several friends as they threw eggs at houses and parked cars. On the way to drop off one of his friends, Jason’s vehicle collided with a vehicle driven by Amy Young, who was seriously injured.
Ms. Young sued the Becks under the Family Purpose Doctrine. The Becks’ auto insurance company obviously did not want to cover her injuries and vehicle damage, denied the claim, and tried to escape coverage by arguing the Family Purpose Doctrine should be abolished. The trial judge ruled in favor of Ms. Young, however, and applied the doctrine to the car accident. That decision was affirmed by the court of appeals.
In 2011, the Arizona Supreme Court also affirmed, rejecting the Becks’ insurance company’s arguments against the Family Purpose Doctrine. The parents’ consent was questioned, but the court concluded that, although the parents did not give Jason express consent to drive around his friends when the crash occurred, they did give their implied consent when they gave him permission to drive the family vehicle. They also held that Jason was driving the car for the “pleasure and convenience” of the family. Thus, the court ruled that the Becks could be held liable for the injuries Amy Young suffered due to the auto accident caused by their son.
What This Means
By applying the family purpose doctrine, the Arizona Supreme Court does not allow parents to escape liability for the careless actions of their children drivers. If a family member driver disobeys his/her parents and drives the car without explicit permission, the parents may still be held liable. Family member drivers do not have to get permission from their parents for each car trip they make or for every route they take when using the family vehicle. The parents are still liable for their children drivers, just like a principal is liable for the actions of their agent.
The real issue with the family purpose doctrine is making sure liability insurance that covers the parents also covers the teenagers driving the parents’ vehicles. Some parents try to exclude their teenagers from their auto insurance coverage – and save money on their premiums – even though their teenagers are driving the family vehicles. The family purpose doctrine makes sure the family member drivers are all covered by liability insurance, despite the parents’ attempt to save some money at the expense of crash victims.
Take it from me, your hometown car accident attorney, if you have children drivers at home using family vehicles, you should notify your auto insurance company. Yes, your rates will go up to cover your children, but that is better than having your auto insurance company denying coverage for a crash your child caused and exposing you to significant personal liability.
If you have questions about the Family Purpose Doctrine, a car accident, your auto insurance policy, or any other personal injury matter, call Kevin Chapman or his team at (480) 833-1113 .
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