Ga. Appeals Court Declines to Recognize “Family Purpose Doctrine” as an Affirmative Defense in Personal Injury Cases

Is a parent automatically liable for a car accident caused by their minor child? Not under Georgia law. That said, there is an exception known as the “family purpose doctrine.” The doctrine dates back to a 1915 case, where the Georgia Supreme Court said:

If a father or mother, owning an automobile, and keeping it to be used for the comfort and pleasure of the family, should authorize a son to drive it for the comfort or pleasure of the family, this would make the owner liable for the negligence of the son operating the machine for such purpose.

The General Assembly later codified a form of the family purpose doctrine, which states a person is “liable for torts committed by … his child … by his his command or in the prosecution and within the scope of his business.” The Supreme Court further in a 2000 case that there are four preconditions to applying the doctrine:

  • The parent must have give permission to the child to driver the vehicle;
  • The parent must relinquish control of the vehicle to the child;
  • The child must be in the vehicle; and
  • The vehicle must be “engaged in a family purpose.”

If all four preconditions are met, the parent is liable for an accident caused by the child, provided there was an “agency relationship” between the parent and child “with respect to the use of the vehicle.”

Guzman v. Link

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed an attempt to invoke the family purpose doctrine as an affirmative defense to a personal injury lawsuit. The case, Guzman v. Link, arose from a tragic November 2016 auto accident. Paul Guzman was a passenger in a car driven by his daughter, Tatum Guzman. Tatum started to make a left-hand turn at an intersection with a yellow light. At the same time, a second vehicle driven by the defendant, Carson Link, traveled straight through the intersection, colliding with the Guzman vehicle. Paul Guzman died as a result of his injuries.

Guzman’s widow subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Link, alleging his negligence caused the fatal accident. Link replied that Tatum Guzman’s negligent driving was the real cause of the accident, and the late Paul Guzman was vicariously liable for her daughter’s negligence under the family purpose doctrine. Link also filed a counter-claim against the Guzman estate to recover his own damages from the accident, again citing the family purpose doctrine.

A trial court granted summary judgment to Link on both issues. The Court of Appeals reversed. First, the appeals court said the family purpose doctrine could not be “used as a defense by a third party to a family member’s claims.” That is, Link could not cite Paul Guzman’s alleged negligence as a defense against the widow’s wrongful death lawsuit.

However, Link could assert his own counterclaim based on the family purpose doctrine. But here, the Court of Appeals said the trial judge was still too quick to grant summary judgment. There were still disputed issues of fact. Specifically, it was not clear based on the record whether or not Tatum Guzman was driving her own car or one that belonged to her father.