Law FAQ: Am I liable for a car accident caused by my child or spouse?

It depends!  Tennessee follows the family purpose doctrine, which can result in a family member, such as a parent or spouse, being held liable for damages caused by another family member’s negligent operation of a vehicle if certain factors are present.  To be liable, a family member must satisfy the following three factors: 1) he/she must be considered the “head of household”; 2) the vehicle must be maintained for comfort or pleasure of the family; & 3) the vehicle must have been used with his/her express or implied consent.  Yet, while these factors might seem simple at first glance, they have been interpreted more broadly than you might think.

First, the “head of household” can be more than one parent, including a parent that does not even live at the same address as the family member who was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident.  This broad definition means that parents with kids in college, and even divorced parents without primary custody of their child can still be considered “head of household” for liability purposes.  Typically, though, the court will consider whether the owner of the vehicle and the driver share a family relationship and whether the owner has some duty to support the driver.

One of the arguments often made by parents is that the vehicle was provided solely for their child and not the comfort or pleasure of the family.  Indeed, this argument was made in a recent case decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  In Arlene R. Starr v. Paul B. Hill, Sr., et al., the Court held in part that “[e]ven though Father may have subjectively intended to give the vehicle just to Son for Son’s sole use, in doing so, he provided a benefit to the family unit by providing Son with a source of transportation.”  Given this interpretation, it will be difficult for any parent to argue that a vehicle used by only one family member is not maintained for the comfort or pleasure of the family.

Lastly, the vehicle must be used with the express or implied consent of the “head of household.”  This means that the “head of household” must have some level of control over the use of the vehicle, such as the ability to provide conditions upon when, where, and how the vehicle may be used and/or the ability to forbid the vehicle’s use.  This factor is especially important for non-custodial divorced parents because the custodial parent may attempt to override limitations on the vehicle’s use.  Ironically, this might relieve the non-custodial parent of liability under the family purpose doctrine.

Parents and spouses, whether married or divorced, should consider the family purpose doctrine when purchasing insurance to make sure all persons and vehicles are properly covered.  It is also important to remember that the family purpose doctrine can mean that the parents of a child who causes an accident can be held liable under Tennessee law.

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