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Can You Hold the “Head of a Household” Responsible for an Auto Accident Caused by a Family Member?


You may be familiar with the concept of vicarious liability when it comes to employers and employees. Essentially, if an employee causes an auto accident while driving a company-owned vehicle, the employer can be held liable for any damages. The idea is that the employee acts as an agent of the employer.

There is actually a similar rule that applies to heads of household. Say your teenage son borrows your car one night with your permission. If he subsequently runs a red light and hits another vehicle, the other driver could sue you for damages. In this context, your son is acting as your agent in much the same way as an employee acts as their employer’s agent.

Judge: Family Purpose Doctrine May Apply to Alleged Vehicle Owner’s Live-in Girlfriend

The Tennessee Supreme Court has described this “family purpose doctrine” as applicable to the “head of a household who maintains a motor vehicle for the general use and convenience of the family.” So what exactly does “household” mean? Obviously, it would include a spouse or a child. But what about other individuals who might live with you, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend? Can the family purpose doctrine extend to these relationships?

A Tennessee federal judge recently confronted this question in an ongoing personal injury case, Collins v. Dodson. This case involves a March 2017 auto accident on I-40. The plaintiff’s vehicle was struck by Kia sedan. The plaintiff subsequently sued the driver of the Kia and a man whom the plaintiff alleged was the actual owner of the vehicle. The driver was also the alleged owner’s “live-in girlfriend,” according to court records.

The alleged owner insisted that his son was the actual owner of the Kia. And even if he was the owner, the family purpose doctrine did not apply as his girlfriend was not a member of his household. The alleged owner therefore asked to be dismissed from the case as a defendant.

The judge declined to do so. First, the judge noted the alleged owner and his son have the same name, and that there was evidence suggesting he modified the title to the Kia after the plaintiff filed his lawsuit. At the very least, the ownership was in dispute such that summary judgment was inappropriate.

Regarding the family purpose doctrine, the judge said there were also “disputed issues of fact” that justified sending the case to trial. The judge noted the “mere fact” the alleged owner and his girlfriend were not married did not necessarily mean that she was not a member of his household. Indeed, the Tennessee Supreme Court has said the “legal significance of paterfamilias has given way in modern times to a broader concept of family,” and a “household” can be more broadly defined to include a “group or set of persons who dwell together as a family under the same roof.”

Speak with a Tennessee Auto Accident Attorney Today

Identifying all of the potential defendants is a critical task before bringing any personal injury lawsuit. An experienced Knoxville car accident lawyer can assist you in investigating all of the facts and circumstances surrounding your auto accident. If you need legal advice or representation, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today to schedule a free consultation.




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