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The Family Purpose Doctrine

The Family Purpose Doctrine

The general rule in North Carolina is that you cannot be held liable for the negligence of another. However, there are exceptions to this rule. One of the most widely known exceptions is the family purpose doctrine.

The family purpose doctrine is most often explained by giving the example of a teenager driving their parent’s vehicle and causing an accident. But please note that the family purpose doctrine is not limited to a parent-child relationship.

The family purpose doctrine allows an accident victim to present and maintain a claim for injuries against an owner of a vehicle for the negligence of a driver under certain circumstances. Essentially, the doctrine allows the accident victim to hold the teenage driver’s parents liable for their injuries caused by the teenage driver.

North Carolina courts have held that, in order to recover for damages under the family purpose doctrine, you must be able to establish that:

  • The defendant (third party that you are trying to find liable) had control over the vehicle
  • The vehicle was owned, provided, and maintained for the general use, pleasure, and convenience of the family
  • The vehicle was being used with the express or implied consent of the owner at the time of the accident
  • The driver of the vehicle was a member of the family or household of the person who had control over the vehicle

Four Elements of the Family Purpose Doctrine Explained

Element 1 – The defendant (third party that you are trying to find liable) had control over the vehicle. 
While this element may seem self-explanatory, further examination is needed. It is important to note that proving a third party owns a vehicle does not necessarily prove that the person has “control” over the vehicle. While the owner does ordinarily have the right to control a vehicle’s use, it is not necessary to prove ownership. The main test is to prove that the person has the right to control the vehicle. There are several “factors” that the court will look at to determine whether a third party has control over a vehicle, such as paying the monthly car payments, paying for repairs, keeping the keys, and having the ability to drive the vehicle.

For example, a vehicle may be in a teenager’s name, however, a parent may be found to have control over the vehicle if the parent pays for the monthly payments, keeps the keys with them, drives the car regularly, and/or pays for regular repairs and maintenance (i.e., changes oil, tires, etc.). If these facts are present, the court will likely find that the parent did in fact have control over the vehicle, thus establishing the element of control for the family purpose doctrine. Furthermore, this protects against a parent (who has more assets than their child) from transferring a car into the child’s name in order to escape liability.

Let’s look at the following North Carolina case to further examine the first element of the family purpose doctrine. In Smith v. Simpson, 260 N.C. 601 (1963), the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a father, although he owned the vehicle, did not have “control,” and therefore the family purpose doctrine did not apply. Mr. Simpson’s son, Wayne, was involved in an accident and was the at-fault driver. The car involved was registered in Mr. Simpson’s (the father) name. The injured party of the other vehicle attempted to use the family purpose doctrine to hold Mr. Simpson (the father) liable. The court, however, ruled that the family purpose doctrine did not apply because the son had negotiated the vehicle’s sale price, paid for all gas and repairs, paid the down payment and the monthly payment, and kept the keys in his possession at all times. Therefore, the court ruled that Mr. Simpson (the father), although the owner, did not have “control” over the vehicle.

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