Family Purpose Doctrine in Georgia

Even though parents cannot be held vicariously liable for the conduct of their children generally, the state of Georgia does recognize the “family purpose doctrine” under which one who has the right and duty of control or the power to control a motor vehicle, possibly a parent, can be held liable for another family member’s actions in a motor vehicle under certain circumstances. This doctrine applies to any family member in the immediate household, not just children. An adult child, a spouse or other family members in the household can serve as a basis for liability to the principal. Titled ownership of the family vehicle is not required in Georgia. Therefore, a principal whose name does not appear on the motor vehicle title can still be held liable.

Under the family purpose doctrine, the principal or principals in a household are presumed to provide for the comfort, pleasure, convenience and enjoyment of the family members. As such, if the principal(s) provide vehicles for these purposes, then such principals can be vicariously liable for the actions of family members using these vehicles within the scope of such permission. The touchstone of such liability is the right of control by the principal, which is similar to that of employer/employee or principal/agent. Violating the scope of the principal’s directives, could remove the liability of the principal. Cases involving the applicability of the family purpose doctrine are factually-specific, and are usually determined on a case-by-case basis.

In 2007, the Court of Appeals, in Hicks v. Newman, held that there are four required elements that must be established to hold a person with the power to control the use of a motor vehicle vicariously liable for actions of another using that vehicle for a family purpose. Hicks v. Newman, 641 S.E.2d 589 (Ga. App. 2007):

  1. the defendant must own or have an interest in or control over the automobile;
  2. the defendant must have made the automobile available for family use;
  3. the drive must be a member of the defendant’s immediate household; and
  4. the vehicle must have been drive with the permission or acquiescence of the defendant.” Hicks, 590.

Each of these four elements is required to hold the owner of a vehicle vicariously liable for another’s negligent driving of the family vehicle. Upon establishing the required elements under Georgia law, the plaintiff can hold the negligent driver and the principal both liable for the negligent conduct of the driver. Express permission of the owner of the vehicle is not required. Interestingly, the Georgia family purpose doctrine has unique variations in that it applies not only to motor vehicles, but also to the use of boats, airplanes and other vehicles.

From a main office in Gwinnett County, attorney Charles Scholle serves clients from offices in Midtown and the Perimeter and represents victims throughout Atlanta and Georgia. To set up your free consultation, you can send the firm a message online or call toll-free at 866-972-5287 or in Atlanta at 770-717-5100.