In super simplified terms, Georgia’s Family Purpose Doctrine states that family members may be legally responsible for other family members who cause injuries. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on the driver’s claim that the father was vicariously liable for the son’s use of the vehicle under the family purpose doctrine because it wasn’t disputed that the father provided a vehicle for the son, a member of his immediate family, who was using it for a family purpose at the time of the accident, and because a jury could infer that the father had control and authority over the son and his use of the vehicle.
Background of this case
This appeal stems from a wrongful death lawsuit filed after an automobile accident between a vehicle driven by the defendant and one that was stopped on the highway. The plaintiff (the son) was the driver and his mother (who died) was a passenger. The father, as the administrator of the mother’s estate, sued the defendant and his employer for negligence. The defendant countersued the mother’s estate under the theories of family purpose doctrine and negligent entrustment of the vehicle to the son.
The defendant was driving in the left lane of the highway using his cruise control. He crashed into the stopped vehicle in that lane. Tragically, the mother suffered fatal injuries and was declared dead at the scene. The defendant raised counterclaims against the son, as the negligent driver, and the father, as a person who exerted control over the vehicle through his relationship with his child.
The father moved for summary judgment on the defendant’s claims of negligent entrustment and family purpose doctrine. He filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on the family purpose doctrine, but argued that the evidence at least raised questions of fact for a jury on the negligent entrustment claim. The trial court granted summary judgment to the father, finding that the defendant hadn’t established the elements of a negligent entrustment claim because
- The evidence showed that the father didn’t own the vehicle at the time of the accident; and
- There was no evidence that the son had a pattern of reckless driving, and the father wasn’t aware and couldn’t have been aware of a pattern of reckless driving.
What is the Family Purpose Doctrine?
The trial court found that the evidence didn’t demonstrate that the father had authority and control over the vehicle owned and driven by his son. This appeal followed.
The defendant argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on his claim that the father was vicariously liable for the son’s use of the Toyota Camry under the family purpose doctrine.
“The family purpose doctrine states that when an automobile is maintained by the owner for the use and convenience of his family, such owner is liable for the negligence of a member of the family having authority to drive the car while it is being used for a family purpose,” Judge Elizabeth Gobeil wrote, quoting a 1991 Court of Appeals decision. To apply the family purpose doctrine to a given situation, four criteria must be met:
- the owner of the vehicle must have given permission to a family member to drive the vehicle;
- the vehicle’s owner must have relinquished control of the vehicle to the family member;
- the family member must be in the vehicle; and
- the vehicle must be used for a family purpose.
Authority and control are the principal factors in determining liability under the Family Purpose Doctrine
Judge Elizabeth Gobeil of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote in her opinion that these factors aren’t determinative of vicarious liability but are necessary preconditions.
Georgia courts have used authority and control as the principal factor in determining whether liability accrues under the doctrine. As such, the judge said that the key question is whether the father “had the right to exercise such authority and control that it may be concluded that an agency relationship existed between him and his son with respect to the use of the vehicle”. Here, evidence demonstrated the following:
- The father purchased the Camry for his son;
- The father paid for the car’s insurance and maintenance;
- The father routinely supplied gas money for its use.
- The son lived at home with his parents and family;
- The son would request permission when he was going out and would inform his parents of his comings and goings;
- The son didn’t pay rent or expenses, but gave his father the money he earned at his job.
- The father never drove the Camry but rode with his son in the car many times;
- The father said he thought his son to be a safe driver and that if the father believed that the son was unsafe, he wouldn’t have let him drive; and
- The mother didn’t drive, so the son frequently would drive her for errands.
On the night of the accident, the son was driving his mother home from a family gathering because his father, who drove the mother to the gathering, had to leave for work.
Judge Gobeil found that this evidence, when construed in the defendant’s favor, raised questions of fact concerning whether the father was liable for his son’s negligence in driving the Camry on the night of the accident. Here, the father described a family dynamic in which he had the authority to control his son’s use of the vehicle.
Further, testimony that the son gave his earnings to his father and generally submitted to his father’s authority shows that the father potentially exerted the type of control over the son that would make him liable for his son’s actions. Although the son provided deposition testimony to the contrary about his father’s control and authority over his use of the car, this contradiction supported the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that there remained a question of material fact that was for a jury to consider.
Thus, because it wasn’t disputed that the father provided a vehicle for his son, a member of his immediate family, who was using it for a family purpose at the time of the accident, and because a jury could infer that the father had control and authority over the plaintiff and his use of the vehicle, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order in part as to its grant of summary judgment on this issue. The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part. Logan v. Younusbaig, 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 503 (Ga. App. October 26, 2022).
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