The Family Purpose Doctrine



The Family Purpose Doctrine

The general rule in North Carolina is that you cannot be held liable for the negligence of another. However, there are exceptions to this rule. One of the most widely known exceptions is the family purpose doctrine.

The family purpose doctrine is most often explained by giving the example of a teenager driving their parent’s vehicle and causing an accident. But please note that the family purpose doctrine is not limited to a parent-child relationship.

The family purpose doctrine allows an accident victim to present and maintain a claim for injuries against an owner of a vehicle for the negligence of a driver under certain circumstances. Essentially, the doctrine allows the accident victim to hold the teenage driver’s parents liable for their injuries caused by the teenage driver.

North Carolina courts have held that, in order to recover for damages under the family purpose doctrine, you must be able to establish that:

  • The defendant (third party that you are trying to find liable) had control over the vehicle
  • The vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the general use, pleasure and convenience of the family
  • The vehicle was being used with the express or implied consent of the owner at the time of the accident
  • The driver of the vehicle was a member of the family or household of the person who had control over the vehicle

Four Elements of the Family Purpose Doctrine Explained

Element 1 – The defendant (third party that you are trying to find liable) had control over the vehicle.
While this element may seem self-explanatory, further examination is needed. It is important to note that proving a third party owns a vehicle does not necessarily prove that the person has “control” over the vehicle. While the owner does ordinarily have the right to control a vehicle’s use, it is not necessary to prove ownership. The main test is to prove that the person has the right to control the vehicle. There are several “factors” that the court will look at to determine whether a third party has control over a vehicle, such as paying the monthly car payments, paying for repairs, keeping the keys and having the ability to drive the vehicle.

For example, a vehicle may be in a teenager’s name, however, a parent may be found to have control over the vehicle if the parent pays for the monthly payments, keeps the keys with them, drives the car regularly, and/or pays for regular repairs and maintenance (i.e., changes oil, tires, etc.). If these facts are present, the court will likely find that the parent did in fact have control over the vehicle, thus establishing the element of control for the family purpose doctrine. Furthermore, this protects against a parent (who has more assets than their child) from transferring a car into the child’s name in order to escape liability.

Let’s look at the following North Carolina case to further examine the first element of the family purpose doctrine. In Smith v. Simpson, 260 N.C. 601 (1963), the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a father, although he owned the vehicle, did not have “control,” and therefore the family purpose doctrine did not apply. Mr. Simpson’s son, Wayne, was involved in an accident and was the at-fault driver. The car involved was registered in Mr. Simpson’s (the father) name. The injured party of the other vehicle attempted to use the family purpose doctrine to hold Mr. Simpson (the father) liable. The court, however, ruled that the family purpose doctrine did not apply because the son had negotiated the vehicle’s sale price, paid for all gas and repairs, paid the down payment and the monthly payment, and kept the keys in his possession at all times. Therefore, the court ruled that Mr. Simpson (the father), although the owner, did not have “control” over the vehicle.

Element 2 – The vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the general use, pleasure and convenience of the family.
Once you have established that the third party had “control” over the vehicle, you must then establish that the vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the general use, pleasure and convenience of the family. In other words, the vehicle must be used as a “family” vehicle. Generally, this includes things like grocery shopping, family trips and outings, and taking the family members to different activities (music lessons, practices, school events, etc.).

Furthermore, as long as the vehicle was used for family purposes, it does not matter what the driver was using the vehicle for at the time of the accident. In other words, the driver’s use of the vehicle at the time of the accident does not have to be for the benefit of the family. For example, let’s assume that a daughter borrows her mother’s vehicle (that is generally used for family purposes) to go meet her friends at the movies and is in an accident. Here, the second element would be met even though the daughter was not using the vehicle for a family purpose. All that matters is that the vehicle is generally used for family purposes, not that the daughter was not using it for the benefit of the family at the time of the accident.

Element 3 – The vehicle was being used with the express or implied consent of the owner at the time of the accident.

In order for the family purpose doctrine to apply, the injured party must also prove that the vehicle was being used with the express or implied consent of the person in “control” of the vehicle. Generally, this is established by showing that the person who has control of the vehicle had either knowledge, approval or consent of the at-fault driver’s use of the vehicle.

With this being said, it is not necessary that the person who is in control of the vehicle have direct knowledge of or have given express consent for the particular trip at hand, as consent may be implied. Implied consent is generally shown through such things like habitual or customary uses by the at-fault driver. Let’s look at the following examples for a better understanding.

Let’s assume that a son borrowed his father’s vehicle that is generally used for family purposes. The son was using the vehicle to go to football practice and caused a collision with your vehicle. The son did not ask for his father’s permission to use the car; however, he almost always uses the same vehicle to get back and forth from practice.

Under these facts, it can likely be established that the son had implied consent to drive the vehicle. Although he did not specifically ask his father to drive the vehicle on this particular occasion, there is still likely implied consent, as the son’s use was habitual and customary (the son almost always used the vehicle to get back and forth from practice).

Element 4 – The driver of the vehicle was a member of the family or household of the person who had control over the vehicle.

Lastly, in order to establish the family purpose doctrine, you must be able to prove that the driver of the vehicle was a member of the household. In other words, the driver lives with the person in control of the vehicle. With this being said, the person does not need to be related to the owner of the vehicle, as long as they live within the household. The examples below help provide a better understanding.

Let’s assume that a “live-in” nanny was driving her boss’s vehicle that is generally used for family purposes. While driving the kids to school, the nanny rear-ends you at a stoplight, causing an accident. Under these facts, the fourth element of the family purpose doctrine could be established because the nanny lived in the household of the person in control of the vehicle (her boss).

Let’s now assume that the nanny only worked four days a week and did not live with the family. The nanny used the family’s vehicle whenever she drove the kids to and from school. While driving the family vehicle to take the children to school, the nanny rear-ends you, causing an accident. Under these circumstances, the family purpose doctrine will not likely apply. The nanny only works four times a week and does not live with the family; therefore, you will not likely be able to establish that the nanny was a part of the household.

Important Note: The burden of proof is on the plaintiff (injured party). This means that the plaintiff must prove, by the preponderance of the evidence (greater weight of the evidence) that all four elements of the family purpose doctrine exist in order to have liability transferred to the person in control of the vehicle.

In Conclusion

In order to establish the family purpose doctrine, the injured party (plaintiff) has the burden of proof. In other words, the plaintiff must establish all four elements of the doctrine in order to have liability transferred to the person in “control” of the vehicle. Lastly, though the family purpose doctrine does allow you to hold a third party liable for an accident, the liability is limited and carefully applied to each case. Therefore, using and proving the family purpose doctrine can be a difficult feat.


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