What is the Family Purpose Doctrine?
The family purpose doctrine enables an accident victim to hold a vehicle’s owner liable if one of the owner’s family members was driving at the time of the accident. It was developed as a response to the traditional common law rule that a vehicle’s owner is not liable for the negligence of the driver, even when the driver was a family member.
It’s important to note that often times, the doctrine is irrelevant. If the at-fault vehicle was a family car, it’s likely that it was covered by an insurance policy applying to the car’s owner and whatever family member happened to be behind the wheel at the time of the accident.
If the owner’s insurance policy doesn’t cover the person who was driving, or if there was no insurance policy at all, then the family purpose doctrine can be a useful means of recovering compensation from the owner’s assets.
How to Invoke the Family Purpose Doctrine
To successfully use the family purpose doctrine, an accident victim must show that:
- The car’s owner purchased or maintained it for the owner’s family’s pleasure and convenience
- The car was being used for a family purpose at the time of the accident
Determining what exactly consists in family purpose, pleasure, and convenience can be a complex matter, and courts proceed on a case-by-case basis. If you’re considering invoking the family purpose doctrine in Illinois, however, you might want to rethink your strategy.
In Illinois, Agency Theory Takes the Place of Family Purpose Doctrine
In Illinois, courts have rejected the family purpose doctrine for being too broad. Instead, they use principles of agency to hold vehicle owners liable for the negligence of drivers. The difference between agency theory and family purpose is subtle yet important.
An accident victim can’t hold a vehicle owner liable just because the at-fault driver was a member of the owner’s family. Instead, the victim must show that the driver was acting as the owner’s agent, and a family relationship isn’t sufficient to establish agency. The controlling factor in Illinois is whether the driver was engaged in doing the owner’s business at the time of the accident.
For example, if a parent allows a child to use the family car to visit some friends, and an accident ensues, the parent will not be liable under agency law. But if the parent asks the child to use the car to fetch some groceries or drop off some dry cleaning, the child becomes the parent’s agent. If the child gets in an accident, the parent could be liable. Note that if the owner asks a neighbor to run an errand with the car, than the neighbor could be consider as an agent too—family ties are practically irrelevant!