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You May Need an Attorney and Not Even Know It

Defending Yourself Against A Lawsuit Employing The Family Purpose Doctrine

by Barry Butler

In general, if you let someone borrow your vehicle and that person gets into an accident, that individual would be held liable for any damages that result. In some states, however, you could be put on the hook for paying out compensation for injuries and damages if the person who caused the wreck was a family member. Here's more information about a law called the Family Purpose Doctrine and a few ways you can defend against it.

About the Family Purpose Doctrine

The Family Purpose Doctrine is a law that allows an injured party to hold the owner of a vehicle responsible for the negligent actions of the driver of that vehicle if the driver is a member of the owner's household. The doctrine is only used in a few states and generally geared towards making parents responsible for accidents caused by teen drivers in the home.

Although the wording and application of the law varies somewhat between states, there four elements the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit must show to successfully attach liability to the party that owns the vehicle the driver was using:

  • The defendant was the owner, had control over, and/or had interest in the vehicle
  • The vehicle was primarily used for family business and/or enjoyment
  • The driver had permission to use the vehicle
  • The driver was a member of the owner's household

All four elements must be true for the plaintiff to prevail; otherwise, the case would likely be decided in favor of the defendant barring other mitigating factors.

Defending Against the Family Purpose Doctrine

There are several different ways you can defend yourself in court against this doctrine. The first way is to dispute ownership of the vehicle. Sometimes plaintiffs will learn that the vehicle was registered in someone else's name and assume that person is responsible for the vehicle, when that may not be the truth. However, when determining who the "owner" of the vehicle is, the court takes several things into consideration:

  • Who paid for the car or truck
  • The purpose for which the party purchased it
  • Who paid the insurance for and upkeep of the vehicle
  • Who actually controlled the vehicle
  • The intent of the purchaser and the user regarding ownership

One effective way of defending against this doctrine is to show that your interest in and control over the vehicle was too minimal to be relevant. For instance, in the 2000 case Tart v. Martin, the court decided the father could not be held liable for damages stemming from an accident his son was involved in because it was evident the father's only interest in the vehicle was as a creditor. He had given his son money to buy the car, but the young man was paying the loan back. Additionally, the vehicle was under the son's exclusive control.

Another way to defend yourself in this type of lawsuit is to show the car was not purchased for family use. For instance, in Jackson v. Carland, the son worked for his father's company and got into an accident in a company-owned vehicle. Because the vehicle was used for business purposes, the father was not liable for his son's accident under this doctrine.

The third defense is to show the family member didn't have permission to use the vehicle. However, this defense can be tricky to employ because sometimes the court interprets permission in different ways. For instance, if the driver had general authority to use the vehicle (e.g. could use it without having to ask permission first), then it may be tough to argue the driver didn't have the authority to use the vehicle in that particular instance when he or she got into the accident.

In cases where there are conditions put on the use of the vehicle, the court may still find the owner liable even if the driver used the vehicle in a way that wasn't authorized. For instance, in an Arizona case, a teen got into an accident while taking his friend home, even though his parents expressly forbade him from using the SUV in that manner. The court still held the parents liable because they felt that to allow such an argument may cause parents to try to escape liability by applying unrealistic and unenforced restrictions on use of family vehicles.

There many other ways to defend yourself in this type of lawsuit. Talk to a personal injury lawyer for assistance with building a viable defense. To find a lawyer, click here for more information