It was just another busy Thursday night at the popular BBQ restaurant Mac’s Speed Shop in South End, when the patrons and employees were disrupted by a car crashing into the side of the restaurant building. The car was driven by a 15-year-old boy who had recently received his learner’s permit. The boy’s father was with him in the car. Apparently, the boy was attempting to park the car, but forgot that the car was in reverse and crashed into the side of the restaurant. Three people were injured, but, fortunately, the injuries were not serious and no one was taken to the hospital. According to police, it is unlikely that the boy will be cited for the accident. However, this fact scenario brings up the issue of the civil liability of the father should the people injured file a claim for damages.
North Carolina statute prescribes the process for licensing new drivers. The boy from last night’s accident would have a Level 1 limited learner’s permit which is issued to people who are “at least 15 years old but less than 18 years old” and pass driver’s education and a written test from the DMV and receive a driving eligibility certificate. A person driving with a Level 1 limited learner’s permit is subject to certain restrictions under G.S. 20-11(c), including the condition that “[a] supervising driver must be seated beside the permit holder in the front seat of the vehicle when it is in motion. No person other than the supervising driver can be in the front seat.” G.S. 20-11(k) provides that
A supervising driver shall be a parent, grandparent, or guardian of the permit holder or license holder or a responsible person approved by the parent or guardian or the Division. A supervising driver shall be a licensed driver who has been licensed for at least five years.
In Stanfield v. Tilghman (1995), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the negligence of a driver operating a car under a learner’s permit is imputed to the supervising driver only if the supervising driver had “a reasonable opportunity to exercise the right or duty” to control the driver “coupled with a failure to do so.” Therefore, a supervising driver may overcome the statutory presumption of control “through evidence demonstrating [he] was not negligent in [his] supervision of defendant’s driving in that in light of defendant’s sudden actions, [he] had no time or opportunity to exercise [his] duty or stop the negligent operation of the car.”
In Stanfield, the driver of the car was a 15-year-old boy with his learner’s permit. The boy’s mother was in the front seat. The boy had drivern for several miles without his mother having to correct his driving. As he approached a left-hand curve, he was met with a car travelling towards him at a fast speed. He suddenly went off the right side of the road, jumped a ditch, sped up, travelled another 200 feet and then struck a tree. The mother/plaintiff received serious injuries.
The issue in the case, as stated by the Court, was
whether the negligence of a driver, operating an automobile under a valid learner’s permit pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 20-11(b), must be imputed to the statutorily approved person who occupies the seat next to the permittee and who has the right to control and direct the permittee’s operation of the car, thereby precluding, as a matter of law, the statutorily approved person from recovering damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of the permittee’s sudden negligence.
At the time of the accident, G.S. 20-11(b) provided that
The limited learner’s permit shall entitle the applicant, while having the permit in his immediate possession, to drive a motor vehicle of the specified type or class upon the highways while accompanied by a parent, guardian, or other person approved by the Division [of Motor Vehicles], who is licensed … to operate a motor vehicle … and who is actually occupying a seat beside the driver.
The Court looked at a previous court of appeals case, McFetters v. McFetters (1990) which held that G.S. 20-11(b) created a statutory presumption that the person occupying the seat next to the permittee had “the right to control and direct the operation of the car.” However, in Stanfield, the Court went on to hold that this statutory presumption is not irrebuttable and may be overcome by evidence showing that the supervising driver “was not negligent in her supervision of defendant’s driving in that in light of defendant’s sudden actions, she had no time or opportunity to exercise her duty or stop the negligent operation of the car.” In order to hold the supervising driver negligent for the permittee’s negligence, “[t]here must be a reasonable opportunity to exercise the right or duty [to control the permittee’s driving] coupled with a failure to do so.”
Therefore, looking at the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a jury could find that the mother was not negligent in her supervision of the boy. Given that the boy had driven for several miles without needing any correction from his mother and that he negligently veered off the road suddenly, the mother “had no time or opportunity to exercise her duty or stop the negligent operation of the car.”
Applying this reasoning to the facts from Thursday night’s accident, the 15-year-old boy’s father was the supervising driver. Although the relevant statute has been modified since the time of Stanfield, it still requires a supervising driver to sit beside the driver in the front seat. Therefore, the statutory presumption would be that the supervising driver would “have the right to control and direct the operation of the car” and therefore be liable for any negligence on the part of the permittee.
Now the question is whether the father had the “reasonable opportunity to exercise the right or duty.” Unlike the facts in Stanfield, where the car was travelling down a road and the driver’s negligence occurred quite suddenly, parking a car is a much slower process. It seems more likely that the supervising driver would have a “reasonable opportunity” to check that the car is in the proper gear before the permittee pressed on the gas pedal. Furthermore, the news report stated that the boy at Mac’s had recently received his learner’s permit and was learning how to park, unlike the permittee in Stanfield who had demonstrated non-negligent driving for several miles before suddently veering off the side of the road. Therefore, you could argue that the boy’s father at Mac’s, as a reasonable supervising driver, should have exercised extreme caution when in a crowded restaurant parking lot, specifically directing the boy to put the car in proper gear and go very slowly, and a failure to do so would be negligent supervision of the permittee.
Liability Under the Family Purpose Doctrine
Another theory under which the father might be held liable is the family purpose doctrine. The family purpose doctrine permits an injured person to hold the owner of a vehicle liable if
(1) the operator was a member of the family or household of the owner or person with control and was living in such person’s home; (2) that the vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the general use, pleasure and convenience of the family; and (3) that the vehicle was being so used with the express or implied consent of the owner or person in control at the time of the accident.
We will assume that the boy at Mac’s was a member of the father’s household. However, what if the boy’s parents were separated and the boy lived with his mother and did not even visit his father’s house? In that case, the facts would be close to those in the 1995 court of appeals case, Taylor v. Brinkman. In that case, the driver’s parents were separated and she lived with her mother and did not visit her father’s apartment. In its opinion, the court of appeals mentioned that the driver did not live with her father; however, the main issue in the case came down to control of the car. Although the car was registered in the father’s name because the mother did not have the credit to buy a car, the mother kept the keys, arranged for insurance, took care of repairs and maintenance and made all payments on the car. Therefore, the mother controlled the car for purposes of the family purpose doctrine. However, it is unclear what the outcome would have been if the father had maintained control over the car even when the daughter was not living with him.
Typically, under the family purpose doctrine, control is determined by looking at several factors, including “a parent’s payment or repayment of the purchase price; payment of insurance premiums, repairs or operating expenses; possession of vehicle keys; and actually driving the vehicle.” Therefore, if the 15-year-old driver at Mac’s had paid for the car, insurance and repairs and possessed the keys so that the car was not provided for the “general use, pleasure and convenience of the family,” the father would not be held liable even if the registration was in the father’s name.
A last issue under the family purpose doctrine is the “consent of the owner or person in control at the time of the accident.” In the accident at Mac’s, because the father was in the car helping the boy learn to drive, the boy clearly had the consent of the father to use the car. However, if the boy had taken the car without the father’s consent and gone out with another supervising driver, the consent factor under the family purpose doctrine might not be met.