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The Family Purpose Doctrine in North Carolina

Suppose you are injured in a car accident with a teenage driver.  Is it possible to hold the teenage driver’s parents liable for your injuries?  Under the family purpose doctrine, the answer is yes.

The family purpose doctrine is an extension of the theory of agency.  In order to recover damages under the family purpose doctrine, North Carolina courts have held that the injured party must show that:

(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.

It is not merely enough to show that a person owned the vehicle to hold that person liable under the family purpose doctrine.  The person must have control over the vehicle.  To determine whether a person has control over the vehicle, courts have held that “relevant “control” factors ... include 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.”

The most common application of the family purpose doctrine is in the case addressed in the first paragraph above - where a teenager is driving his parent’s car.  However, just because a minor child is driving a car to which his parent has title does not automatically make the family purpose doctrine applicable.  According to North Carolina courts, the family purpose doctrine is not “a sort of antidote to juvenile delinquency or a palliative for traditional youthful recklessness.”

Conversely, the family purpose doctrine can also apply to family members other than minor children.  Courts have stated that “a person may be liable under the doctrine for damage caused by the negligence of spouse, parent, brother, sister, nephew, niece, grandchild or other of more remote kinship, or of one not of kin, provided he is a bona fide household member.”  In all cases, the required elements must be found in the relevant facts.

So let’s look at some cases in which North Carolina courts have applied the family purpose doctrine.  The 1963 case, Smith v. Simpson, is one of the earlier cases to explain the application of the family purpose doctrine.  In that case, Mr. Simpson’s son Wayne was involved in a car accident.  At the time of the accident, Wayne was 18 years old.  The car that Wayne was driving at the time of the accident was registered in Mr. Simpson’s name.  However, Wayne negotiated the purchase of the car, made the downpayment, paid for gasoline and repairs, was obligated to pay the balance of the purchase price and always kept the keys.  Mr. Simpson co-signed the note and provided credit for the purchase loan, but he never drove the car.

Under the facts of Smith v. Simpson, the court held that Mr. Simpson did not control the car and that his part in the purchase transaction was only “incidental and secondary.”  The injured party in that case was prohibited from holding Mr. Simpson liable under the family purpose doctrine.  The court distinguished the facts in Smith v. Simpson from a prior case where the family purpose doctrine was applied when a daughter had received the car as a gift from her mother and uncle and the mother occasionally used the car without the specific permission of the daughter.

In a more recent case, Taylor v. Brinkman, the North Carolina Court of Appeals applied the family purpose doctrine to a situation with separated spouses whose daughter was involved in an accident.  The court reiterated in that case that the family purpose doctrine can only extend to one member of the family and that the main issue is who has control of the vehicle.  The court stated that:

In deciding who has control of a vehicle, ownership is not conclusive. Rather, the central inquiry is "who maintains or provides the automobile for the use by the family. That person is the party in 'control' of the vehicle.

At the time of the accident in Brinkman v. Taylor, Mr. Brinkman and Mrs. Brinkman had separated and were not living together.  Their daughter lived with Mrs. Brinkman and did not even visit Mr. Brinkman’s apartment.  After Mr. and Mrs. Brinkman separated, Mrs. Brinkman needed a new car but did not have any credit.  So Mr. Brinkman signed the loan and the car was registered in his name.  However, Mrs. Brinkman made the downpayment and all other payments for the car, arranged for insurance and handled the repairs and maintenance.  Mr. Brinkman did not have keys to the car and never used the car.  He did not even know that their daughter was driving the car until after the accident.

The Court of Appeals likened the facts in this case to the facts in Smith v. Simpson.  It reasoned that Mr. Brinkman’s part in the transaction was merely “incidental and secondary” and held that the Mr. Brinkman did not provide or maintain the vehicle for his family so he did not control the vehicle.

Another recent case from 2000, Tart v. Martin, applied the same reasoning from Smith v. Simpson and Brinkman v. Taylor to a situation in which the father loaned his son the purchase money for the car and allowed the son to pay back the money over time.  Because the son “had actual, exclusive control” over the car after its purchase, the plaintiff could not use the family purpose doctrine to hold the father liable for damages.

A final interesting case from 2008, Jackson v. Carland, involved a son who worked for his father and was involved in a car accident while driving a company-owned vehicle.  In that case, the plaintiff tried to hold the father liable for damages under the family purpose doctrine.  The court held that the family purpose doctrine did not apply because the vehicle was not for family use and “our courts have not expanded this doctrine to encompass company-owned vehicles.”

It is possible in North Carolina to hold parents liable for damages caused by their children in a car accident, but this liability is limited and carefully applied to situations that meet the criteria required by the family purpose doctrine.  If you have been injured in a car accident, visit www.rflaw.net to get legal help.

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