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Understanding the Family Purpose Doctrine and When It Applies to Car Crashes

Most of us have heard some version of the old expression “the family that plays together stays together.” The message suggests what many people believe instinctively – that building bonds between family members can result in a sense of togetherness and support. While we agree that a family’s emotional bonds are important, what about legal bonds? Are there times when one member of a family should be legally responsible for the actions of another family member?

In this article, we will explore this issue by discussing the applicability of the family purpose doctrine in Oregon.

Vicarious Liability Concept

We have discussed the concept of vicarious liability in several different contexts in the past. In some instances, the law recognizes a special relationship between two people (or entities) and places responsibility upon one for the acts or omissions committed by the other.

The most common example arises in an employment context. An employer is often responsible for the negligent acts or omissions of an employee. For instance, consider an employee at a retail store who negligently leaves a slippery substance on the floor. A customer slips and is injured. The retail store can be held liable for the acts of the employee.

Similarly, when a semi-truck driver negligently causes a motor vehicle accident, the trucking company often can be held liable for the negligence of the driver.

It is this theory of vicarious liability that informs the family purpose doctrine.

What Is the Family Purpose Doctrine?

The family purpose doctrine makes an automobile owner liable for a family member’s negligence while driving the owner’s automobile under certain circumstances. For the doctrine to apply, the owner must maintain the automobile for the convenience or pleasure of his family; the driver must be a family member; and the family member must be using the vehicle with the owner’s knowledge and consent.

In other words, the family member is treated as an agent of the owner – meaning the owner can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of the family member.

Let’s take a look at an example:

Assume that James and Julie Johnson are married, and have a 16-year-old daughter named Janie. James and Julie each have a car titled in his or her respective name. James and Julie also are the titled owners of a small compact car, which they allow Janie to use. Janie refers to the car as “her car” because she is the primary driver; however, James and Julie also drive the car. James and Julie pay for the insurance and upkeep of the car. Janie pays for the gas.

One day, Janie is driving “her car,” when she runs a stop sign and plows into Dean Dandridge. Dean suffers serious personal injuries requiring hospitalization and long-term medical care. Dean contacts the Johnsons’ insurance company, which offers to pay the limits of Janie’s insurance policy, which is quite low. James and Julie have additional insurance, but claim that it doesn’t apply because they weren’t responsible for the accident.

In such a case, Dean’s lawyer will pursue recovery under the family purpose doctrine. Because James and Julie maintained the car for the convenience of the family, and because Janie was driving it with the owners’ knowledge and consent, they can be held vicariously liable for her negligence.

Issues with the Family Purpose Doctrine

Whether or not the family purpose doctrine applies can be highly fact-intensive.

For example, ownership of the car may be an issue. In our example above, if Janie paid for the car and held the title to the car, the parents would not be the owners, and therefore not subject to liability under the family purpose doctrine.

Similarly, joint ownership can be an issue because one joint owner is not vicariously liable for another joint owner.

Additionally, one can imagine that cases frequently arise in which it is disputed as to whether a driver had the owner’s consent to drive the car.

Finally, it is sometimes disputed as to whether a person is a member of the family at all. Often, such questions must be resolved by a jury.

Call with Questions

The law provides that there are times under the family purpose doctrine when the owner is responsible for a family member’s negligence. However, it is fairly common for an owner or insurance company to attempt to avoid responsibility. Therefore, careful investigation and development of the facts may be crucial for a victim to receive full and fair compensation.

If you have been injured in a car accident and have questions, the experienced personal injury lawyers at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield will be happy to answer them. Give us a call today.