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Ariz. Justices say parents liable for son's accident

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 7, 2011


PHOENIX (Legal Newsline) -- The Arizona Supreme Court ruled this week that a teen's parents were liable for their son's actions after he drove without their permission, collided with another car and seriously injured its driver.

In the case, the Court addressed the family purpose doctrine's application. It also considered whether the state Legislature statutorily abrogated the doctrine and, if not, whether it should abolish it.

According to the Court, the doctrine "subjects the owner of a (vehicle) to vicarious liability when the owner provides an automobile for the general use by members of the family ... and when the vehicle is so used by a family member."

Kenneth and Barbara Beck allowed their son, Jason, 17, to drive their SUV. He was the primary driver of the vehicle and used it for travel to and from school, church and work. With his parents' permission, Jason also could drive the vehicle for social and recreational purposes.

However, after Jason was involved in an accident while driving the vehicle, the Becks specifically instructed him not to "taxi" his friends or drive their girlfriends home.

About a month later, Jason asked to use the SUV to drive to a friend's house after work. Jason's mother allowed it, but with the understanding that he would drive to his friend's house, spend the night there, and then drive home the next day.

Instead, after going to his friend's house, Jason drove around with several friends, throwing eggs at houses and parked cars.

He then drove his friend's girlfriend home, and while on his way to drop off another friend, collided with a vehicle driven by Amy Young, who was left seriously injured.

Young sued Jason and also named the Becks as defendants, alleging they were liable for Jason's negligence under the family purpose doctrine.

The Maricopa County Superior Court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Young. But the parties later entered into a "high-low" settlement, under which the Becks agreed to pay Young one of two specified damage amounts, depending on whether the summary judgment ruling was affirmed or reversed on appeal.

In the appeals court, the Becks argued that the family purpose doctrine did not apply because Jason violated their restriction against "transporting of friends." Alternatively, the Becks contended that the doctrine should be abolished. The appeals court rejected those arguments and affirmed the superior court's ruling, holding the Becks "vicariously liable" for their son's negligence.

The state's high court, on review, agreed with the two lower court rulings. Justice A. John Pelander authored the Court's 22-page opinion.

"Although the permission did not extend to transporting friends, the courts below correctly concluded that Jason's deviation from his parents' limitation on his use of the vehicle did not entitle the Becks to summary judgment on Young's family purpose doctrine claim," the Court wrote in its April 5 opinion.

The Court noted that once having allowed the use of a vehicle for family purpose, a parent is not relieved from liability merely because the family member was using the vehicle for an unauthorized purpose or in a forbidden manner at the time of the accident.

"The Becks allowed Jason to drive the vehicle on the night in question (and thus he had the vehicle with their express permission), and he was transporting himself," it wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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