How Georgia’s “Family Purpose Doctrine” can Determine Responsibility for a Car Accident

It is a well-established principle of Georgia personal injury law that an employer can be held legally responsible for the negligent acts of its employees. In other words, if you are injured in a car accident because a delivery van ran a red light, you can sue the company that owns the delivery van for damages. This is known as “vicarious liability.”

What happens when a teenager drives his or her parents’ car and causes an accident? Vicarious liability can also apply in these cases under a rule known as the “family purpose doctrine.” As explained by the Georgia courts, the doctrine holds that “the owner of an automobile who permits members of his household to drive it for their own pleasure or convenience is regarded as making such a family purpose his ‘business.’” So, by letting your child use your car, you are creating a “master-servant” relationship similar to when an employer authorizes an employee to use a company-owned vehicle.

Doby v. Bivins

Of course, before you can ask a court to apply the family purpose doctrine, you first need to establish who owns the vehicle in question. This can be difficult in “hit and run” cases, where a negligent driver speeds away from the scene without providing identification or insurance information to the other driver.

Here is an illustration of the problem accident victims can face in such circumstances. In 2014, a woman – the plaintiff in this case – and her two children were involved in a two-car accident. The other driver fled the scene. The plaintiff was alert enough to take down the license plate number of the other car and contact the police. Although the plaintiff observed the other driver was a man, the police traced the vehicle’s registration to a woman.

The plaintiff eventually filed a personal injury lawsuit against a second woman, who was the mother of the woman identified by the police as the vehicle’s owner. The plaintiff initially claimed that the mother was liable under the family purpose doctrine because she “must have given permission” to the still-unidentified male driver to use the car on the day of the accident.

The mother replied that she had no “authority or control over those responsible for the accident.” She asked the trial court to dismiss the case because there was no evidence she even owned the car. The plaintiff then moved to “join” or add the daughter as an “indispensable party” to the case. The judge granted the mother’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s, thereby dismissing the case.

But the Georgia Court of Appeals said the plaintiff was entitled to a new hearing on her motion to add the daughter as a defendant. The plaintiff conceded that she named the “wrong party” in her initial lawsuit. But the appeals court also noted there was “some basis” to possibly hold the daughter, as the registered owner of the car, liable under the family purpose doctrine if there is evidence that the “unknown driver was a family member.”

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