Who Is Held Accountable If an At-Fault Driver Does Not Own the Car?

Georgia’s Family Purpose Doctrine can allow you to receive compensation from the owner of a vehicle whose family member was using the car, truck, or motorcycle for a family purpose.

Key Points:

  • Under the family purpose doctrine, car owners and their insurance companies can sometimes be held responsible for the negligence of a family driver.
  • Family purpose cases often involve a teenager using the family car with the permission of a parent owner, allowing the victim to bring a claim against the parent, instead of the teen.
  • The family purpose doctrine can allow an injured driver to have a way to recover financially when the driver is not insured on their own.
  • When the driver of a vehicle is a family member living in the same household, using the car for their pleasure, comfort or convenience, financial recovery from the owner, if they were not the driver, may be possible.

Who is responsible for paying when an accident is caused by a teenager or young adult, still living at home and is driving their parents vehicle but does not have their own insurance policy? Whether you can receive a settlement or have a verdict paid, often depends on whether the Georgia Family Purpose Doctrine applies to the facts of your case.

Parents are not automatically liable for their children’s negligence when driving. However, under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-2, car owners who provide a vehicle for members of their household to use are liable for their relative’s negligence if certain requirements are met.

Assuming the facts and circumstances of your case meet the criteria, the car owner’s insurance carrier is obligated to fully compensate you for the cost of the accident.

When is the Family Purpose Doctrine Applied?

Although people are not usually liable for others’ negligence, sometimes it’s only fair to look beyond the person directly to blame and hold someone else accountable. Under the family purpose doctrine, car owners can be held vicariously liable for the actions of a person driving their car if the following requirements are met:

  1. they own or have an interest in or control over the vehicle;
  2. they have made the vehicle available for family use;
  3. the driver is a member of the owner’s immediate household; and
  4. the vehicle was driven with the permission or acquiescence of the owner.

If all four conditions exist, the victim must then show that the car owner had sufficient authority and control over the use of the vehicle to justify vicarious liability.

What does that mean? It depends on the circumstances. Here are some examples:

A case where the Georgia Family Purpose Doctrine Applied: In one Georgia case, the court found that a 19-year-old male who was driving the family car on an errand was a resident of his father’s household under the doctrine even though he lived and worked in another city but returned to his father’s house almost every weekend and maintained a room there.

A case where the Family Purpose Doctrine Did Not Apply: In another case, an 18-year-old male caused an accident while driving a truck owned by his father and the truck had been loaned for the son’s personal use, but the child was found not to be a member of the household at the time of the accident because he had moved out six months earlier, rented an apartment, and rarely stayed at his parent’s house.

To ensure that you get coverage, and can settle your case using the family purpose doctrine, you or your injury attorney must present evidence proving each factor. Often, this involves an extensive investigation into the family’s living arrangements, vehicle use, and insurance terms.

Using The Family Purpose Doctrine Helps Protect Against Drivers Not Listed on an Insurance Policy

In a perfect world, car owners would list all the members of their household on their insurance policy to ensure that accident victims are protected. In fact, insurance companies ask people to disclose household members who are old enough to drive because they know borrowing cars is a common practice in families—and most teenagers and young adults don’t have their own insurance coverage.

Unfortunately, however, some people either don’t realize they need to list certain relatives, or they intentionally leave them off their policy to lower their insurance premiums. Not all carriers will allow insureds to exclude active drivers who live under the same roof, though, because they know they will likely be sued if they deny coverage for the borrowed car. In such cases, the Family Purpose rule can save the day, insuring the negligent driver even if not listed on the household automobile insurance policy.

But if a policy specifically excludes the driver or the insured lied about having a driving relative living with them, the carrier can, and likely will, fight coverage for an accident (though the car owner can still be found personally liable for damages). Otherwise, the car owner’s insurance carrier must compensate the accident victim when the family purpose doctrine applies even if the driver is not listed under the policy.

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Common Questions about the Family Doctrine

How Does the Family Purpose Doctrine Affect Insurance Claims?

When you’re involved in a car accident, you have the right to recover your costs from the at-fault driver. But when the person at fault has borrowed the car from a family member, you may also have a car accident claim against the car owner under the family purpose doctrine. If so, that means that two people can be held responsible for the accident. But who pays?
When the driver and owner are covered under the same insurance policy, the answer is simple: their carrier. That means the insurance company must compensate you up to the policy limit for your property damage and injuries. It’s important to realize that the policy follows the car, not the people, which means that there is only one insurance policy available to cover your costs even though two people may be personally responsible—and having two people liable doesn’t increase the limit.
Even when the driver has a separate insurance policy, the car owner’s carrier is still responsible for paying your costs when the family purpose doctrine applies. That means that if you file a claim against the driver’s carrier, it will deny coverage unless you’ve maxed out the car owner’s policy first. If your costs exceed the car owner’s policy limit, you can file a claim against the driver’s insurance carrier for coverage under the secondary policy. For example, if your costs were $30,000 and the car owner’s policy limit is $25,000, you can recover the remaining $5,000 by filing a claim against the driver’s insurance carrier. If there is no secondary policy, you can sue the driver personally to recover the remaining $5,000.
If you’re unable to prove the essential factors under the family purpose doctrine, the car owner’s insurance carrier will probably deny coverage. In that situation, you can seek coverage under the driver’s policy for all your costs. When the driver has no insurance, you can file a lawsuit to recover compensation from the driver personally or file a claim under your own uninsured motorist policy.

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