In most states, the driver of a vehicle is typically liable for any accidents he or she causes, regardless of who actually owns the car or truck he or she was driving. However, some states have a law called the Family Purpose Doctrine that holds the owner of the vehicle liable for accidents caused by other people in the household who use it. Here's more information about this law and how you can use it to collect compensation for damages.
Elements of the Family Purpose Doctrine
The Family Purpose Doctrine is a state law. As such, the elements for establishing liability for an accident using it vary somewhat between the states. In general, you must show the following elements to be true:
- The defendant owned, had interest in, or had control of the vehicle in question
- The vehicle was made available for the benefit of the family
- The person driving had permission to use the vehicle
- The driver was a member of the owner's immediate family and/or household
All of these elements must be true for you to win your case, and some provide more flexibility for implementation than others. For instance, somes the registered owner of the vehicle is not the same person as the individual that has primary control over it. This can happen when people divorce. One person is awarded the family vehicle but, for some reason, never changed the registration to reflect the new ownership. If the registered owner doesn't live in the home with the driver who hit you (and, by extension, couldn't give permission for a third-party to use the vehicle), you could still go after the spouse who had possession and control over the car or truck when it was used.
Some states apply the immediate family/household requirement broadly as well. In North Carolina, a vehicle owner may be held responsible for children, spouses, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and even non-kin as long as you can prove the person was a member of the owner's household. This may require establishing the person is a dependent of the owner, though. If the person pays the vehicle's owner rent, buys groceries, and claims his or herself when filing taxes, the owner could argue that individual is a renter and not a member of the household, regardless of any familial connection between the two parties.
Lastly, the driver typically must have permission to use the vehicle, and many states will not hold owners liable if the driver didn't have authorization to use the car or truck. However, this is not necessarily true if the driver has permission to use the vehicle in one manner but uses the car or truck in another prohibited way.
For instance, the parents of an Arizona teen only gave him permission to drive an SUV to school, work, and church. They prohibited him from using the vehicle to drive friends around. However, the teen took his friends joyriding and got into an accident while taking one of his friends home. The court found the parents were still liable for the teen's negligence despite the prohibitions because the court felt that to allow this type of argument may lead parents to improve unrealistic or unenforced restrictions on kids' use of vehicles as a way to escape liability.
When to Use This Doctrine
This doctrine works best as a last-resort option when pursuing compensation for injuries. In most cases, the driver is a member of the household, and any insurance policy the family has will cover the damage caused by the person. If the individual who cause the accident is an adult who has a job and assets that can be seized, you can usually sue the adult directly for damages.
If there is no insurance to cover damage or the driver was a teen or an indigent person, then using the Family Purpose Doctrine may be a good way to hold someone who has money and assets responsible for paying for your damages and losses.
For more information about this doctrine or help with litigating an automobile accident case, contact an attorney.