The family car doctrine is not as straightforward as it sounds. It extends beyond family members, and imputes liability on those who are not merely the title holder of the car. This article explores the boundaries of the family car doctrine as it currently exists in Connecticut jurisprudence: (1) who is a “family” member under the doctrine? and (2) who is a proper defendant for vicarious liability under the doctrine?
The Family Car Doctrine found its beginnings in Connecticut jurisprudence in 1919. In Wolf v. Sulik,93 Conn. 431(1919) a plaintiff was injured when his wagon was struck by a car. The car was owned by the defendant-wife and being driven by her husband. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s judgment holding the wife vicariously liable for the husband’s negligence. In so doing, the Court relied on the principals of respondeat superior. The Court held that because the wife purchased the car for the pleasure and convenience of her husband, she was liable for his negligent acts.
Four years later, the Connecticut Supreme Court formally adopted the family car doctrine into the common law. See Stickney v. Epstein, 100 Conn. 170 (1923). There, the Court announced “when a motor-car is maintained by the paterfamilias for the general use and convenience of his family, he is liable for the negligence of a member of the family having general authority to drive it, while the car is being used as a family car.” The Court went on to clarify that when a household member “maintains an automobile for the pleasure, use and convenience of his family and in pursuance of such purpose authorizes members of his family to use it for such purpose, he by so doing makes such pleasure uses his affair, and constitutes members of the family so operating the car his agents engaged in the prosecution of his affairs.” Id. at 179; see also Dibble v. Wolff, 135 Conn. 428 (1949).
A “Family” Car?
The Family Car Doctrine is a misnomer of sorts. It is not limited to those in consanguinity with the owner. See Smart v. Bissonette, 106 Conn. 447 (1927). The Connecticut Supreme Court has attributed vicarious liability to the person who has control over the vehicle’s use when the car was driven by: a housekeeper, see Smart v. Bissonette, 106 Conn. 447, and to those who operate the family car on behalf of the household member for which the family car was intended to benefit, see Hunt v. Richter, 163 Conn. 88. Generally, then, the driver must be a member of the household, or operating the car at the direction of a household member who has general authority to use the vehicle. See Luby v. Moore, 2013 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1276 (Conn. Super. Ct. June 7, 2013) (Wilson, J.).
In addition to the common law family car doctrine, there is a statutory codification found within C.G.S. § 52-182. This statute creates the presumption that a driver operated a vehicle as a family car if the driver was the “husband, wife, father, mother, son or daughter of the owner.” The predecessor to C.G.S. § 52-182 was adopted in 1931. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 600a (1931). Its purpose was to govern procedure, not create new substantive rights. See Hunt v. Richter, 163 Conn. 89-90 (1972) citing O’Dea v. Amodeo, 118 Conn. 58, 65-66 (1934). The Supreme held that a mother was not vicariously liable under the family car doctrine for a crash caused by a son who did not live in her home.
Who Can Be Held Vicariously Liable Under The Family Car Doctrine?
To be vicariously liable, a person must “own, maintain, or furnish the car, and have or exercise some degree of control of its use.” Cook v. Nye, 9 Conn. App. 221 (1986). In Cook, the father was the title owner to the vehicle and gave his daughter $400 to help her purchase the car. Otherwise, he did not use the car or make payments on the car. The Appellate Court held that merely holding title to the vehicle was sufficient to establish control for purposes of the family car doctrine.
Although sufficient to establish control, being the title owner is not a condition precedent for establishing control under the family car doctrine. The word “owner is one of flexible meaning . . . which must be interpreted in its context and according to the circumstances in which it is used.” Burdis v. Allstate Ins. Co. 44 Conn. App. 53 (1996).In Durso v. A.D. Cozzolino, Inc. 128 Conn. 24 (1941), the title owner of a car was a company. The CEO of the company allowed his daughter to drive the car for her pleasure and convenience. The daughter’s negligence caused a crash. The Connecticut Supreme Court held that the father could be vicariously liable under the family car doctrine even though he was not the title owner. The Court held that the “controlling element” of the doctrine is the scope of the intended use of the car rather than title ownership.
Thus, to impose vicarious liability under the family car doctrine, the inquiry focuses on the ability to control the use of the vehicle—not title ownership. See Auth v. Wesley, HHD-CV-030822570, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1551 (June 14, 2007). Simply because a household member does not hold title to a vehicle does not preclude application of the doctrine if there exists other indicia of control over the vehicle. If this household member furnishes the car for the driver’s use and has some degree of control over the use of the car, the doctrine applies.