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Can Georgia Parents Be Held Responsible For Their Daughter’s Accident?

There are different theories under which parents can be held vicariously (indirectly) liable for their child’s negligence while driving including the family purpose doctrine and respondeat superior. In a recent Georgia appellate decision, the court considered a Georgia car accident in which one driver sued a second driver for negligence and her parents for vicarious liability. The drivers crashed into each other when the defendant was 28 and living with her parents. The defendant co-owned the car she’d been operating with her mother. Her mother had co-signed for a loan so that the defendant could get the car.

The car insurance policy was in the names of the parents, but the defendant provided the father with the money for the loan payments and reimbursed her father for the insurance premiums. She paid for gas and maintenance and had sole possession of the vehicle’s keys. Her parents didn’t have any say in whether she operated the vehicle. She worked for her father’s company, but at the time of the accident she was driving to go volunteer and wasn’t acting as her father’s agent.

The mother and father filed a motion for summary judgment on the vicarious liability issue. The father argued he didn’t have any ownership of the car, and the mother argued she didn’t have authority or control. The plaintiff argued that there were issues of material fact on whether the parents could be held responsible under respondeat superior or the family purpose doctrine. The parents’ motions were denied.

The defendant filed a motion to enforce a settlement agreement she claimed the insurer had entered into with the defendant. The parents moved for summary judgment on vicarious liability.

The lower court held hearings on the motions and granted the defendant’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement while denying the parents’ motions for summary judgment on vicarious liability. It also gave the parents a certificate of immediate review so they could immediately appeal. The appellate court granted the application, and the parents appealed. The plaintiff cross-appealed from the lower court granting the defendant’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement.

The appellate court explained that the undisputed evidence showed the parents couldn’t be held responsible for the defendant’s negligence under the doctrines of respondeat superior or the family purpose doctrine. Under the family purpose doctrine, a parent can be held accountable for a tort perpetrated by a child under his command or within the scope of his business. Where a car is maintained by an owner for the convenience of the family, the owner is liable for the family member’s negligence where the family member has authority to drive the car and the negligence happens while it’s operated for a family purpose. The principal question is agency and control over the vehicle.

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s denial of the parents’ motion for summary judgment. It also found the defendant hadn’t unequivocally accepted the plaintiff’s settlement offer to the defendant’s insurer. It reversed the lower court’s granting of the motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The appellate court concluded the family purpose doctrine didn’t apply because the parents didn’t have control or authority over her using of the car. She gave her dad money to pay for the loan and reimbursed him for premiums and didn’t need her parents’ permission to use the car.

The appellate court also looked at whether there was evidence to support holding the parents vicariously liable under respondeat superior. In this case, the father was the sole proprietor of the company where the defendant worked. However, the defendant wasn’t involved in company business at the time of the crash. Accordingly, the appellate court found there was an error in the denial of the parents’ motion for summary judgment.

If you are injured in a car accident in Atlanta or elsewhere in Georgia, you should consult Stephen M. Ozcomert. He is a skillful car accident attorney with more than 20 years of experience. Call us for a free consultation at (404) 370-1000 or contact us through our website.

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