Beware To Parents Who Let Other Family Members Drive the Family Car: The Family Purpose Doctrine is Reaffirmed in Arizona
Parents often let other family members, usually their teenage children, drive the family car. They do not, typically, realize that they expose themselves to personal liability for the negligent acts of those drivers in that car. The Arizona Supreme Court — in a case called Young v. Beck — left no doubt that parents are subject to liability under the “family purpose doctrine,” which it reaffirmed as the law in this State.
Young involved a seriously injured woman who sued both the minor driver of a car that negligently struck hers, as well as the parents of that driver that let him drive the car. The parents told their son he could only drive the car to spend the night at a friend’s house, after which he was to return directly home. The driver caused the collision while driving himself and several friends around to throw eggs at houses and parked cars.
Despite not knowing that their son was engaged in such activity, and having expressly forbidden such on the night at issue, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the parents were still responsible for their son’s negligence under the “family purpose doctrine.” This doctrine subjects a vehicle owner to liability when that vehicle is provided for general use by members of the family and the vehicle is so used by a family member. The Arizona Supreme Court originally adopted this doctrine in 1919 as a social policy generated in response to the problem presented by massive use of the automobile. The doctrine’s primary justification is to provide for an injured party’s recovery from the financially responsible person—the family head—deemed most able to control to whom the car is made available. The thinking was that justice should require the owner be responsible for its negligent operation.
The parents claimed the family purpose doctrine was no longer valid in Arizona. First, they claimed it was no longer valid because of a 1987 Arizona statute passed that made each tortfeasor responsible for paying his or her percentage of fault and no more. The Arizona Supreme Court rejected this argument because a) there was no evidence that the legislature specifically intended to abrogate the family purpose doctrine when it passed this statute; and b) requiring all Arizona vehicle owners to carry liability insurance coverage with minimum limits is not inconsistent with the family purpose doctrine.
Second, the parents claimed that the family purpose doctrine was invalid because of subsequent Arizona insurance statutes that a) required drivers to have minimum liability coverage of $15,000 per person and $30,000 per occurrence; and b) allowed motorists to protect themselves by purchasing uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage in their automobile insurance policies. This argument was likewise rejected because the court was not convinced these insurance provisions were either intended to abrogate the family purpose doctrine or that they would guarantee that parents would adequately ensure their children drive safely or that victims of young, inexperienced, and financially insecure drivers will be fully compensated.
Finally, the court rejected the parents’ assertion that the doctrine is grossly unfair to any parent of a young driver and functions solely as a penalty against wealthy parents. While not denying the validity of this argument, the court did not find it compelling enough to justify overturning the nearly 100 year old case precedent. The court said that mere disagreement with prior decisions is not enough to overrule prior established case law. The court noted that if the Arizona Legislature wanted to abrogate the doctrine, it could and should do so explicitly.
Though the court in Young claimed the family purpose doctrine did not always automatically expose car owners that let family members use their automobile come “hell or high water,” that fact is all but so. The doctrine does not require that the vehicle be furnished for a parental or communal errant. The court will nearly always find the necessary “family purpose” element met when a family head maintains or furnishes a vehicle for the general use, pleasure and/or convenience of a family member. This is true even where the family member uses the car in an expressly forbidden manner or deviates from the terms of consent. This is because the court believes a different rule would enable parents to immunize themselves from liability by imposing general, unrealistic, or unenforced limitations on their child’s use of the vehicle.
Young illustrates how important it is for parents to not only be conscious of their children’s driving skills and general behavior when they are not subject to their direct supervision, but also for them to have appropriate insurance coverage. That coverage should include significant liability coverage on the vehicle at issue, as well as an umbrella policy that provides additional coverage to the parents for well over and above that automobile liability coverage.