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Family Car Doctrine

A RULE OF LAW applied in particular cases of NEGLIGENCE that extends liability to the owner of an automobile for damage done by a family member while using the car.

The family car doctrine, also known as the family purpose doctrine, is based on the premise that a car is provided by the head of the household for the family's use and, therefore, the operator of the car acts as an agent of the owner. For example, if a husband is the owner of a car and his wife uses the car for one of the purposes for which it was purchased, such as grocery shopping, then the wife is acting as the husband's agent in carrying out such purpose. Under the family car doctrine, the owner of the family car (in this case, the husband) is legally responsible for any damage caused by the family member driving the car (in this case, the wife) if the owner knew of and consented to the family member's use of the car. The courts of approximately 20 states follow this doctrine.

Liability under the doctrine is contingent upon control and use of the automobile. An individual upon whom liability is sought to be imposed must own, provide, or maintain the automobile. In addition, in order to successfully initiate an action within the meaning of the doctrine,

it must be proven that the automobile existed for family use and pleasure. If an automobile was purchased and is used for business purposes, it might come within the doctrine, provided it is also used for family purposes and was used for such purposes at the time of the accident.

Some insurance carriers attempt to avoid the application of the family car doctrine by asking policyholders for the ages of household members, and listing teenagers as "excluded" drivers on their parents' policy.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Ex proprio motu (ex mero motu) to File