As every parent of a teenager knows, one of your worst fears is that your child will be involved in an auto accident. What happens if your child is held legally responsible for the accident? As the parent, are you liable for any damages arising from a personal injury lawsuit brought by the other driver?
Yim v. Carr
A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Yim v. Carr, offers some useful insight into how the law works in this area. This case began with an April 2016 two-car accident. One driver, the defendant, is a 28-year-old woman who lives with her parents. At the time of the accident, she was driving a car she co-owned with her mother. According to the defendant, her mother co-signed the loan to purchase the car, and the vehicle was listed on her parents’ auto insurance policy. However, she made all of the loan payments and reimbursed her parents for the insurance premiums. She also maintained that the car was solely used by her and never by her parents.
After the accident, the other driver (the plaintiff) sued both the defendant and her parents. Regarding the latter, the plaintiff argued the parents were “vicariously liable” for their daughter’s negligence. The parents moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion but allowed the parents to file an immediate appeal to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals ended up reversing the trial court and awarding summary judgment to the parents. The appeals court explained that under Georgia law, the parents could only be held vicariously liable for their daughter’s accident under a rule known as the “family purpose doctrine.” Stated simply, the doctrine holds 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 a family having authority to drive the car while it is being used for a family purpose.”
In this case, the Court of Appeals said the “uncontroverted evidence” showed the defendant’s parents “did not have the requisite authority and control” over her car to bring the family purpose doctrine into play. Not only did the defendant reimburse her parents for all expenses related to the car, but she also did not need their permission to drive the vehicle at any point. The defendant may have been living at home, but she was an adult with a job and the car was for her use only.
Separately, the Court of Appeals also held the parents could not be held liable for the accident under the legal principle of respondeat superior–that is, the responsibility of a business owner for the negligent acts of its employees. The defendant did work for her father’s business. But the car was not owned by the business, and at the time of the accident the defendant was not traveling for any purpose related to the business.