Case Summary: Family Purpose Doctrine in North Carolina

Negligence and the Family Purpose Doctrine

Lynn v. Clark, 252 N.C. 289
Supreme Court of North Carolina, 1960

Background

This case arose out of the alleged wrongful death of David C. Lynn (David). The action was brought on his behalf by his father (plaintiff), in his role as the administrator of Lynn’s estate. The estate of Charles Clark (Charles), who the plaintiff alleged was the driver of the vehicle, was represented by his administrator.

Procedural History

At the trial court, the jury could not reach a decision and a mistrial was declared. The plaintiff made a motion to set aside the verdict, and the trial court denied that motion. The plaintiff then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, alleging that the jury should have been instructed on the ‘family purpose doctrine.’

Facts

The plaintiff alleged that David was riding as a guest passenger in a 1956 Chevrolet automobile owned by Mildred M. Clark, mother of the deceased defendant Charles. According to the plaintiff, Charles was operating that vehicle negligently, carelessly, and wrongfully. Charles Clark was a minor, fifteen years of age, at the time of the wreck, and the plaintiff alleged that Clark’s mother, Mildred, gave her consent, knowledge, and permission for Charles to use the vehicle. The plaintiff further alleged that the family of Charles Clark was liable for the wrongful death of Lynn because of the family purpose doctrine. The administrator of Lynn’s estate sought compensation for damages for the death of Lynn due to the alleged imputed negligent conduct of the Clark family vehicle.

At the trial, Mildred testified as to what she had told the two boys earlier that day. She stated that she allowed David and Charles have the car, with the understanding that David was to drive it and not Charles. She stated that she never at any time authorized Charles to drive David. At the close of the evidence, the case was submitted to the jury, without an instruction of the family purpose doctrine. The jury could not agree and a mistrial was declared.

Rules of Law

Under the family purpose doctrine, the owner or person in control of a vehicle is held liable for the negligent operation of that vehicle by a member of his or her household. A valid cause of action based on the family purpose doctrine is stated by allegations to the effect “that: (1) at the time of the accident the operator was a member of his family or household and was living at home with the defendant; (2) that the automobile involved in the accident was a family car and was owned, provided, and maintained for the general use, pleasure, and convenience of the family, and (3) was being so used by a member of the family at the time of the accident with the consent, knowledge, and approval of the owner of the car.” Lynn v. Clark, 252 N.C. 289 (N.C. 1960).

In this case, the plaintiff presented insufficient evidence to submit a family purpose doctrine instruction to the jury, as there was conflicting evidence as to whether Charles had consent to drive the vehicle. The court also stated that though proof of ownership of the motor vehicle by the defendant may sometimes be allowed in order to invoke the family purpose doctrine, there must first be a case of actionable negligence. The plaintiff in this case failed to allege sufficient facts that proved Charles was driving at the time of the accident. Thus, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the trial court.

This case is an excellent example of how alleging and presenting specific facts is required when one wishes to apply the family purpose doctrine. Though the plaintiff showed ownership of the vehicle by the family, there was insufficient evidence presented concerning the defendant’s alleged negligence. In fact, the testimony by Charles’ mother evidenced that David was the only one of the boys who had permission to drive, and that Charles did not have consent to operate the vehicle. An understanding of the three essential requirements of the family purpose doctrine is essential in assessing accidents that involve minor children operating family vehicles.


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