Sometimes in personal injury and car accident cases, individuals who have not actually caused the accident themselves can also be held liable for the injuries that result. This is often known as vicarious liability. Examples of vicarious liability include employers that are held liable for the actions of their employees, or principals who are held liable for their agents. A recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals looks closely at whether vicarious liability can occur when the employee or agent is not held liable themselves.
In this Georgia auto accident case, T.A. was injured after she was involved in a car accident with C.L. and D.B. At the time, C.L. was allowing his grandson to drive his car as practice shortly after receiving his driver’s license. D.B. collided with T.A. while he was driving. T.A. suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident.
T.A. sued D.B. for her injuries and also sued C.L. as the family member who allowed D.B. to drive, under the doctrine of family purpose. Under the family purpose principle, family members who own a car and allow others to drive it can be held responsible when those individuals cause an accident. The doctrine arose as a result of the fact that when those who were injured sued younger drivers, or the elderly, for their injuries, the defendants frequently had no assets and were virtually judgment proof. In order to give plaintiffs a better chance of recovery, the family purpose doctrine was expanded to allow plaintiffs a better chance of recovery.
In T.A.’s case, she sued both D.B. and C.L. under the family purpose principle. However, T.A. failed to serve D.B. properly under Georgia’s rules, and, as a result, T.A.’s claims against D.B. were dismissed. Once D.B., the negligent driver, was dismissed, the trial court decided that T.A.’s claims against C.L. had to be dismissed as well because C.L. could not be held liable if D.B. was not held liable as well.
T.A. appealed, arguing that the lower court’s dismissal was inconsistent with prior decisions in the Georgia courts that had held that while a claim against an employer or family member for vicarious liability must be dismissed if the claim against the party who caused the injury fails on the merits, when a claim against the party causing the injury is dismissed for a failure to correctly serve, this is not a failure on the merits and does not require the dismissal of the claims against the vicariously liable party.
The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed. It found that prior court decisions by the Georgia courts required a reversal of the lower court’s decision. Specifically, just because T.A.’s claims against D.B. had been dismissed, this did not require the claims against C.L. to be dismissed because the court had not made a judgment on the merits against D.B. Since the lower court’s decisions were inconsistent with decisions of the higher courts, the Court of Appeals held that the ruling in T.A.’s case could not stand.
Instead, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, with clear instructions that the lower courts could still find vicarious liability even when claims against the parties causing injuries are dismissed for procedural reasons.
The Court of Appeals decision enforces a clear rule within the Georgia courts and clarifies that principals, employers, and family members can be held liable for injuries caused by another person even if that individual is no longer part of the original case. This means that family car owners must be particularly careful when allowing other family members to use their vehicles, particularly those who are not experienced drivers or may have a propensity toward accidents or irresponsible behavior.
Stephen M. Ozcomert is an Atlanta car accident attorney with over 20 years of experience handling auto accident cases, including cases involving young drivers or potential liability for family members. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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