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Torts-Family Purpose Doctrine Not Abrogated by UCATA & FRA

Young v. Beck, __Ariz. Adv. Rep. __, No. CV-1—0230-PR (April 5, 2011) (J.Pelander)
FAMILY PURPOSE DOCTRINE RENDERS SON THE AGENT OF HIS PARENTS IN OPERATION OF FAMILY VEHICLE PLACING THE DOCTRINE OUTSIDE THE ABOLITION OF JOINT LIABILITY IN UCATA AND SON'S MINOR DEVIATION FROM SCOPE OF PERMISSION TO USE VEHICLE DOES NOT EXCUSE PARENTS FROM LIABILITY FOR HIS NEGLIGENT DRIVING

Defendants furnished a sports utility vehicle to their seventeen year old son Jason to drive to school, church and work. He also had his parent's permission to use the vehicle for social and recreational purposes. However, after getting in an accident, Mom and Dad specifically prohibited him from providing a “taxi” service for his friends or driving their girlfriends home. A month later he was given permission to drive the car to a friend's house, spend the night and drive home the next day. He was not given permission to use the car for any other purpose. Nonetheless he did drive friends around that night “egging” parked cars and ultimately driving a girlfriend home when he seriously injured the plaintiff in a collision.

The plaintiff sued Jason and his parents under the family purpose doctrine. The defendants argued that the doctrine either did not apply because Jason did not have permission to use the car as he was using it at the time of the accident or alternatively it was abrogated by the state legislature's enactment of the Uniform Contribution Against Tortfeasors Act —A.R.S. § 12-2506 [UCATA] and Financial Responsibility Act A.R.S. 28-4009, -4135 [FRA]. Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed on the issue. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion. Both the Arizona Court of Appeals and Supreme Court affirmed.

First the supreme court noted the ninety year old doctrine provides that “[A parent] who furnishes an automobile for the pleasure and convenience of the members of his family makes the use of the machine for the above purposes his affair or business, and . . . any member of the family driving the machine with the [parent's] consent, either express or implied, is the [parent's] agent.” The principal question here is whether UCATA in abolishing joint liability in most circumstances and the FRA in requiring $15,000/$30,000 in auto insurance for permissive users, eliminated the family purpose doctrine. Finding to the contrary the court noted that subsection (D) of UCATA provides that joint liability is preserved where it is proven the tortfeasor is the agent of the party to be held jointly liable. The family purpose doctrine expressly makes the family member driving the vehicle the agent of the head of the household and thus within the exception. Further, a statute will not abrogate common law unless the legislature shows a clear intent to do so. No such intent was demonstrated here. Rather, the court noted that, “it is now usually recognized that the doctrine represents a social policy generated in response to the problem presented by massive use of the automobile. The doctrine's primary justification is to provide for an injured party's recovery from the financially responsible person—the family head—deemed most able to control to whom the car is made available.”

Finally, the court ruled that a minor deviation from the restrictions placed upon the driver by the head of the household will not take the case outside the doctrine. Where the parent furnishes the vehicle to their son and generally allows him to operate it for his use and pleasure, failure to comply fully with the parent's instructions on its use will not absolve the of responsibility should the son negligently injure another with the vehicle.

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