Motor Vehicle Collisions and Vicarious Liability: The Family Purpose Doctrine and Negligent Entrustment (Part 1)

Often after a motor vehicle collision, it’s obvious who the responsible parties are—the at-fault driver, possibly the vehicle manufacturer, and possibly the premises owner. One less obvious and regularly overlooked party, is the owner of the vehicle being driven by the at-fault driver.

Georgia law provides two ways of holding a vehicle owner responsible for a collision that occurred while someone else was using their vehicle. These are the Family Purpose Doctrine and the Negligent Entrustment Theory. Part one of this two part blog will explain the requirements for holding a vehicle owner responsible under the Family Purpose Doctrine.  Part two will discuss what is needed to do the same under the Negligent Entrustment Theory.

What is the Family Purpose Doctrine?

In Georgia, the Family Purpose Doctrine is used to hold a vehicle owner vicariously liable for injuries caused by another person’s negligent driving. Because vicarious liability is being imposed on the vehicle owner, the negligent driver must be a party to the case, and must have caused the plaintiff’s injuries. O’Hara v. Gilmore, 310 Ga. App. 620 (2011).

Once the case is properly structured, a two-step process is required to impose liability under the Family Purpose Doctrine. The first step explains when the doctrine applies, and the second step determines if the doctrine applies.  Under the first step, four preconditions must be met.  These are:

  1. The vehicle owner must own or have an interest in or control over the automobile;
  2.  The vehicle owner must have made the automobile available for family use;
  3.  The driver of the vehicle must be a member of the vehicle owner’s immediate household;
  4.  The vehicle must have been driven with the permission or acquiescence of the vehicle owner. Hicks v. Newman, 283 Ga. App. 352 (2007).

If all four preconditions are met, the second step then requires a determination that the vehicle owner “had the right to exercise such authority and control that it may be concluded that an agency relationship existed between the vehicle owner and the family member with respect to the use of the vehicle.” Dashtpeyma v. Wade, 285 Ga. App. 361 (2007).

Family Purpose Doctrine in Application

Like many areas of the law, the Family Purpose Doctrine is not as straightforward as it appears. There are several factors that can affect whether the doctrine applies.

First, merely owning the vehicle is “insufficient to establish the owner’s liability for the negligence of another driver.” Hicks, 283 Ga. App. 352 (2007).  There must be evidence that the owner had the right to control the vehicle’s use.

Second, the vehicle does not need to be in the process of being used for a family purpose at the time of the incident. All that is required is that the owner provide the vehicle for the “pleasure, comfort, and convenience” of the driver “without any expectation of reimbursement.” Danforth v. Bulman, 276 Ga. App. 531 (2005).

The attorneys at Butler Tobin understand the Family Purpose Doctrine, and have represented hundreds of people injured in motor vehicle collisions.

It is your right to seek justice from everyone responsible for your injuries. If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact our attorneys for a free consultation. Or, call us at (404) JUSTICE.

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