How the Family Purpose Doctrine Can Impact Car Accident Cases in Georgia

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Key Points:

  • Under the family purpose doctrine, car owners can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of a family member when certain statutory conditions exist.
  • In Georgia, the car owner’s insurance carrier must compensate the accident victim when the family purpose doctrine applies even if the at-fault driver is not listed under the owner’s policy.
  • In situations where the driver has a separate insurance policy, the car owner’s carrier is still responsible for paying the costs of the accident when the family purpose doctrine applies.
  • Car owners who let intoxicated people drive their vehicles may be held liable for punitive damages—and punitive damage awards are not limited by the terms of the insurance policy.

If you have been involved in an accident caused by someone driving a borrowed car, you need to know whose insurance company is responsible for paying your damages. Typically, this situation arises when teenagers or young adults still living at home are allowed to use their parent’s vehicle.

Parents are not automatically liable for their children’s negligence when driving. However, most types of insurance coverage follow the car rather than the driver in Georgia. Under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-2, known as the family purpose doctrine, 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.

How the Family Purpose Doctrine Helps Accident Victims

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.

But if an insurance 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.

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.

For example, in one case, an 18-year-old male caused an accident while driving a truck. The first element was met because his father owned the truck, procured the tags, and paid for service and maintenance. The second element was met because the father had provided the truck for the “use and convenience” of his family (i.e., his son). In addition, the father had given permission for his son to drive the truck (permission may be express or implied).

However, the court found that the third requirement wasn’t met because the son was not a member of his father’s immediate household at the time of the accident. Under the law, age is irrelevant to the family purpose analysis—the fact that he was an adult didn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter whether the family member is married or has children of their own (the car owner can be liable for their child’s spouse and children too if they live under the same roof).

Instead, the court considered evidence that the son had moved out of the family home six months before the accident, lived in a separate residence for which he paid rent, and rarely stayed at his parents’ house. Because the victim didn’t prove the third element, the father was not liable under the family purpose doctrine.

In another case, the court found that a 19-year-old male 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.

In situations where the four requirements were met, the court has determined vicarious liability based on the “authority and control” element. For example, a father who provided his son a car was liable under the family purpose doctrine when the son let his friend drive—even though he had disobeyed his father in doing so. The rationale was that because the son, who had permission to use the car, was riding in the car at the time of the accident, the son retained authority and control over the vehicle (by extension, so did his father). In cases where the child let someone else drive the vehicle alone, the parent was not vicariously liable because the child was not directing its use.

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

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 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.

How the Family Purpose Doctrine Can Affect Punitive Damages

Just as it’s common for parents to let their teenage and young adult children borrow their cars, it’s also common for young drivers to attend parties where alcohol is consumed. All too often, innocent victims are hurt or even killed by young people driving drunk. In most types of car accident claims, you cannot recover compensation beyond the limit of the applicable insurance policy. However, if you were injured by a driver who was intoxicated, you could receive a much higher payout.  

Under Georgia law, punitive damages are awarded to victims to punish and deter “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. Courts have found that DUI is an aggravating factor that can trigger such an award, and car owners who let intoxicated people drive their vehicles may also be held liable for punitive damages—and punitive damage awards are not limited by the terms of the insurance policy. Even when the driver doesn’t have separate insurance coverage, the family purpose doctrine can help victims get a punitive damages award from the car owner’s insurance company. If you want to recover punitive damages against the car owner, however, the aggravating circumstances that support the award must arise separately from the negligence of the driver. In other words, mere negligence is not enough—you must prove that the owner knew the driver was intoxicated or likely to drive drunk.

If you want to file such a claim, be aware that more than one Georgia law may apply to the facts of your case. First, if the driver is under 18, parents have a common law duty to exercise reasonable care to control a child who they know acts recklessly or carelessly, which includes drunk driving. Second, if the driver is living under the same roof (whether a minor or an adult) and the car owner lets them borrow the vehicle to go to a party where they were likely to drink, the family purpose doctrine may be used to support an award of punitive damages against the owner.

Under a related law, car owners who allow people to operate their vehicles knowing they are intoxicated or have a history of DUI can be liable for punitive damages for negligent entrustment. Negligent entrustment can apply regardless of the relationship between the driver and owner. For example, if you’re leaving a party and let a friend who is intoxicated drive you home in your car, that is negligent entrustment. Both you and your friend may be liable for punitive damages if your friend causes an accident.

Our Lawyers Handle These Types of Car Accident Claims

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, you may be able to recover damages from the car owner as well as the driver. Before filing a claim with the insurance company, you should speak with an experienced car accident attorney to discuss your options. Our attorneys can help. Call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys.


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