The Family Car Doctrine and Parents’ Potential Liability

May 19th, 2015 - Carmichael Clark

The Family Car Doctrine and Parents’ Potential Liability for the Conduct of Their Child, Even an Adult Child:

In Washington, a parent can be held liable for injury or damages caused by a family member driver (even an adult child) if:

  • The vehicle is owned, provided or maintained by the parent;
  • The vehicle is generally used for pleasure and convenience of family members;
  • A family member was driving the car at the time of the accident; and
  • The vehicle was used with the express or implied permission of the parent.

Courts will consider a few factors in assessing whether a parent is the “owner” of a vehicle.  Some of these factors are:

  • who paid for the vehicle.
  • who had the right to control the use of the vehicle.
  • in whose name the title is held.
  • the intent of the parent regarding ownership of the vehicle.

In an unpublished opinion from 2010 the Court of Appeals, Division 1, upheld a dismissal of the claims against a parent finding that the parent cannot be held liable for an adult child’s actions under the family car doctrine when the child had been gifted the car, the parent exercises no control over the vehicle, the child does not ask permission to use the vehicle, and the title is solely in the child’s name, even if that child lives at home rent free and receives sporadic financial assistance for gasoline and vehicle repairs. Bearwood v. Thurik, 156 Wn. App. 1032, 2010 Wash. App. LEXIS 1307 (2010).

The facts of the Bearwood case are as follows:

Twenty-four year old Arielle Thurik was involved in a motor vehicle accident while driving a car she received as a gift from her uncle. Arielle was living with her mother, Jane, at the time, and had been living there off and on since her high school graduation. Although the title of the vehicle had originally been in both Arielle and her mother’s names, her mother removed herself from the title two years prior to the accident. Arielle’s mother helped pay for gas initially, but as Arielle began working, Arielle provided her own gas for the vehicle. Arielle controlled the vehicle and if her mother wanted to use it she would ask Arielle’s permission.  Arielle was insured under her mother’s insurance policy, but often made her own payments directly to the insurer or reimbursed her mother.

Arielle was involved in a motor vehicle accident, and the claimant brought suit against Arielle’s mother under the family car doctrine, alleging that the car was provided or maintained for family purposes. Jane moved for summary judgment, arguing that she did not exhibit control over her daughter’s vehicle. The trial court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claim.

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that there were sufficient factual issues regarding whether Jane “maintained” Arielle’s vehicle to prevent the granting of summary judgment.

Plaintiff argued:

  • Arielle was financially supported by her mother because Arielle did not pay rent:
  • Arielle occasionally received gas money from her mother;
  • Jane paid for repairs to the vehicle on at least one occasion; and
  • Jane’s name was originally on the title.

Plaintiff argued there was a reasonable question of material fact about whether or not Arielle was using the car under the family car doctrine.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with Plaintiff and held that her claims were “highly speculative.” The Court found that the Plaintiff failed to provide support for the argument that the car was for the “general use, pleasure, and convenience of the family”, and that the vehicle was used with permission. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision, and the case was dismissed.


-Jolyn Hunt, Attorney

Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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