The Family Purpose Doctrine

It is a widely held belief that when a child wrecks the family car and injures someone, a parent is also responsible for the injuries. It turns out that in many instances, this is correct. In Georgia, the legal principle behind this belief is called the “Family Purpose Doctrine”. Georgia injury law provides some of the legal framework for this doctrine. O.C.G.A. § 51-2-2 tells us that “every person shall be liable for torts committed by his wife, his child, or his servant by his command or in the prosecution and within the scope of his business, whether the same are committed by negligence or voluntarily.” There is a presumption that the head of the family acts as a principal whose business it is to provide for the convenience, comfort, pleasure or enjoyment of his family, who are his agents. So, when this head of the “family business” keeps and maintains an automobile for these purposes, he or she is liable for automobile accidents caused by family members when they use the car within the scope of the family business. To hold a person responsible under the family purpose doctrine requires a completely separate “cause of action”, which is a separate lawsuit that may be filed within the lawsuit that is filed against the negligent driver.

Under the family purpose doctrine, there may be liability even when the driver who is negligent and causes a car accident is using the vehicle for purely personal reasons, e.g., driving to a fast food restaurant to pick up a snack for his consumption only. What gives rise to legal liability under this principle is the right of control over the vehicle. First, the head of the household must make the vehicle available for the family to use and, second, the actual use of the vehicle is within the scope for which it was made available. It is therefore implied that the person providing the vehicle also has the power to withdraw permission of its use and / or limit its use.

Just because the head of household’s instructions about the use of the vehicle are violated does not necessarily mean that the family purpose doctrine does not apply. For example, if the family member has permission to use the family car but allows a non-family member to drive it, as long as the family member is in the car during its permitted use (even if such use is forbidden), the family purpose doctrine still applies.

As with many automobile negligence laws in Georgia, there are exceptions to the general rule. For instance, the family purpose doctrine has not been extended to apply to bicycles or animals. On the other hand, the doctrine has been applied to watercraft and airplanes. Also, it does not have to be a minor child that causes an accident for this doctrine to apply. The doctrine also applies to adult children living with the parent, a spouse, or other actual family member living within the household. The doctrine does not apply to family members driving alone who have been forbidden to use the car. Also, the law does not apply to in-laws even if these in-laws live in the home nor does the doctrine apply to family members that do not live at home.

One possible advantage to applying the family purpose doctrine is when the vehicle involved in the collision is either uninsured or underinsured (for example, has only Georgia’s minimum liability insurance coverage of $25,000). If the head of household has liability under the family purpose doctrine, this may provide for additional insurance coverage if this person has general liability insurance or umbrella coverage or, if no such coverage exists, is a high earner or has substantial assets which may be used to satisfy a judgment to cover severe or catastrophic personal injuries.

If you have been involved in a car accident in Georgia with a driver that appears to be young enough to likely live at home, call Georgia’s car accident attorneys at McAleer Law. We will investigate all possible avenues of recovery for you or a family member who have suffered serious injuries caused by a negligent driver in Atlanta or elsewhere in Georgia.

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