Legal Memorandum: Parents Liability for Child's Negligence

Issue: Are parents liable for injuries caused by a child’s negligence while operating a vehicle owned by the child, but insured by the parents and provided to the child for the purpose for which it was used at the time of the accident?

Area of Law: Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Vicarious liability of parents; Negligent acts of children; Vehicle
Jurisdiction: Vermont
Cited Cases: 75 A.2d 694; 104 Vt. 5; 68 A.2d 913; 156 A. 399
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 11/01/2007

In Vermont, an owner of a vehicle is not vicariously liable for injuries arising out of the operation of his vehicle.  Long ago, the Supreme Court of Vermont considered whether a father, who owned and provided an automobile for his family’s recreational use, was liable for injuries caused by his son’s negligent operation.  In Jones v. Knapp, the court rejected the “family purpose” doctrine.  Jones v. Knapp, 104 Vt. 5, 156 A. 399 (1931).  In Jones, two adult children resided with their parents and had use of the family car for business and personal purposes.  On the occasion at issue, Harriet Jones received permission from her father to use the car to travel to work to obtain a list of pupils in the piano class she taught.  On her way, she negligently caused a collision.  The defendant sought to attribute her negligence to her father under the family purpose doctrine.

Under that doctrine,

where the head of a family maintains an automobile for the pleasure, convenience, and use of his family, he is liable for injuries inflicted in the negligent operation of the car while it is being used by members of the family for their own pleasure or purpose, on the theory that it is being used for the purpose for which it was furnished and is maintained, and that, in operating it, the member of the family is acting as the agent or servant of the owner.


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