The family car—it’s the gateway to all the places we want to go! Whether it’s soccer or basketball practice, to the multiplex for a new movie, to the grocery store for ice cream, or off to the pool for a few cooling laps on a hot summer day… the family car takes us there. On any given day, parents, their driving-age kids, a grandmother or grandfather, or another household member might be taking the family car to destinations near or far. It’s the way we live and share in America. But what happens when a household member operates the car negligently and causes damage in an accident? In this episode of On Subrogation, Rathbone Group’s founding partner, attorney Kim Rathbone provides a detailed overview of Family Car Doctrine, owner liability issues, and the many ways they could impact the owner if a driver is found to be negligent.

Establishing Liability in Subrogation Claims Cases Involving Automobiles 

The Family Car Doctrine establishes owner liability in subrogation claims cases wherein a household member is found to have operated an automobile negligently, resulting in damages caused by an accident. This is referred to as ‘vicarious liability’ because a principal/agent relationship arises between the owner of the automobile and any household driver when the family automobile is made available for family members’ use. 

As with any legal issue, individual states may have their own interpretations in a subrogation claim for property damage. Regarding Family Car Doctrine, some states have declared that a family automobile owner has a legal and moral responsibility to support other household family members who may have caused injuries while driving the automobile. Other states are even more definitive, declaring that the owner is always liable when they entrust another person to drive their automobile and that person causes injuries due to their negligence. 

To establish a subrogation claim for property damage, the following elements of the Family Car Doctrine may need to be met, depending on the jurisdiction:

  1. The head of the household must own, provide or maintain an automobile for the purpose of providing pleasure or comfort for their family.
  1. The driver must have been using the motor vehicle at the time of the injury in furtherance of that family purpose.
  1. The owner knew of and provided either express or implied consent to the household member’s use of the vehicle.
  1. The family purpose driver must be a member of the owner’s household or, in some states, under the immediate direction thereof.

While the Family Car Doctrine is favored and established in many states as a basis for subrogation claims (thirteen to be exact) other states such as Texas and Louisiana reject the doctrine and do not follow it at all. However, in states which do recognize and abide by the Family Car Doctrine it can be applied in a subrogation claim for property damage. 

Taking a closer look, here are some examples of the liberal application of Family Car Doctrine:

  1. The owner cannot avoid liability by being willfully ignorant. For example, if a vehicle has been made available for family use, the owner cannot claim that they were unaware when a household family member uses it. The owner is still liable.
  1. The driver doesn’t have to be a ‘family member’ at all in order for the owner to be liable in a subrogation claims case. As long as the driver is a household member, the owner will be liable.
  1. Some states do not require the accident to have occurred during an ‘errand’ for the owner. It’s important to check with your individual state to fully understand how Family Car Doctrine might apply to you in subrogation claims.
  1. Some states will include children over the age of 18, if they are still legal dependents of the owner. Other states may limit the liability in general at the age of 18. 
  1. Family Car Doctrine may even apply to vehicles purchased and used primarily for commercial purposes if the vehicle was used for a family cause or reason at the time of the accident. It is important to note that some policies may require the ages of all household members to be disclosed under the policy, and some policies may even exclude drivers (particularly teen drivers).

What a Claims Adjuster Might Consider When Family Car Doctrine is Applied in Subrogation Claims

There are a number of common issues a claims adjuster might look for immediately in order to be able to deny a claim. Let’s look at a few of the most common:

  1. Policy language: Are there parties listed in the policy that are specifically excluded from driving?
  1. Who lives in the household? It’s important to remember that Family Car Doctrine can be applied if the negligent driver is a ‘household member.’ They are not required to be a blood relation as the word “family” implies. 
  1. Why was the vehicle being used at the time of the accident? Remember, some states are rather strict about the application of Family Car Doctrine, so if the vehicle was being used for an errand for the owner, the doctrine might apply.
  1. Adult vs Minor: It’s important to never assume that the owner will be free of liability if the driver is a minor, because if the driver is a legal dependent of the owner, the owner can still be held liable in subrogation claims cases for the negligent actions of a minor driver.

The Family Car Doctrine can be applied in many situations for subrogation claims cases, but it is important to check with your individual state and make sure you fully understand your specific state’s interpretation and use of the doctrine. If you have a subrogation claims case and need legal counsel, call Rathbone Group’s experienced attorneys today.