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Chapter 28: Family Purpose Doctrine

§ 28.1 Generally


The Case:  Camper v. Minor, 915 S.W.2d 437 (Tenn. 1996).


The Basic Facts:  Plaintiff, a truck driver, was involved in a fatal accident with another vehicle at an intersection and subsequently exited his truck and viewed the body.  Plaintiff brought an action for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) against the owner of the car with which Plaintiff collided and the administrator of the deceased driver’s estate. 


The Bottom Line:


·      “The family purpose doctrine has been in effect in Tennessee for nearly eighty years, King v. Smythe, [204 S.W. 296 (Tenn. 1918)], and according to at least one court, has been ‘firmly established in this state.’  Stephens v. Jones, [710 S.W.2d 38, 42 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984)].  Under the doctrine, the head of a household who maintains a motor vehicle for the general use and convenience of the family is liable for the negligence of any member of the family driving the vehicle, provided the driver received express or implied consent.”  915 S.W.2d at 447.


  • “The family purpose doctrine is applicable when two requirements have been satisfied.  First, the head of the household must maintain an automobile for the purpose of providing pleasure or comfort for his or her family.  Scates v. Sandefer, [44 S.W.2d 310 (Tenn. 1931)].   Second, the family purpose driver must have been using the motor vehicle at the time of the injury ‘in furtherance of that purpose with the permission, either expressed or implied, of the owner.’  Redding, 230 S.W.2d at 205.  See also Stephens v. Jones, [710 S.W.2d 38 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984)];  Long v. Tomlin, [125 S.W.2d 171 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1938)].”  Id.


  • “The defendants argue that the family purpose doctrine is merely a variant of joint and several liability, and that because this Court has stated that joint and several liability no longer exists as an independent legal doctrine, see Bervoets v. Harde-Ralls Pontiac, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 905, 907 (Tenn. 1994), the family purpose doctrine is no longer valid.  Therefore, they conclude, Ms. Barnett cannot be held liable for the actions of Ms. Taylor.”  Id.


  • “We cannot accept this argument.  Our statements in Bervoets and Volz v. Ledes, 895 S.W.2d 677, 680 (Tenn. 1995),FN5 regarding the doctrine of joint and several liability were made in situations where multiple tortfeasors committed separate, independent acts that combined to cause a single, indivisible injury to the plaintiff.  Therefore, our earlier rulings concerning joint and several liability concerned apportioning liability among persons whose active negligence contributed to the plaintiff’s injury.  Owens v. Truckstops of America, 915 S.W.2d 420 (Tenn. 1996) (Drowota, J. dissenting).


FN5  Bervoets and Volz are the only post-McIntyre cases in which an argument concerning the abolition of joint and several liability was made and the issue squarely presented.”


Id. at 448.


  • “In stark contrast, the family purpose doctrine does not involve such a situation.  Rather, that doctrine attaches liability to the head of the household not because of any negligent act committed by that person, but because of the agency relationship that is deemed to exist between the head of the household and the driver of the family car.  In other words, the actions of the driver are imputed to the head of the household as a matter of public policy; and the plaintiff does not have to prove negligence on the part of the head of the household in order to recover from him or her when the plaintiff is injured by the tortious conduct of the driver.  See generally [Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 73, at 524-27 (5th ed. 1984)].”  Id.


  • “Once the nature of the family purpose doctrine and the proper scope of our prior statements regarding joint and several liability are understood, it becomes clear that those statements do not affect the viability of the family purpose doctrine.  This same conclusion was reached by the New Mexico Court of Appeals in an analogous context:


[T]he abolition of joint and several liability when tortfeasors are negligent does not necessarily undermine principles of vicarious liability.  There are still situations in which a party who is without fault is responsible for paying compensatory damages caused by the fault of another.  To take the example closest in point, the rule of respondeat superior provides that a faultless employer is nevertheless liable for torts committed by an employee in the course and scope of employment.  Because liability is not predicated on the fault of the employer, the abolition of joint and several liability does not eliminate respondeat superior liability.


Medina v. Graham’s Cowboys, Inc., 827 P.2d 859, 863 (N.M. App. 1992) (emphasis added and citations omitted).”  Id.


Other Sources of Note:  Gray v. Mitsky, 280 S.W.3d 828 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008), perm. appeal denied, (Feb. 2, 2009) (driver can be operating vehicle for family purpose even though he/she is using the vehicle for his/her own pleasure or convenience); Thurman v. Sellers, 62 S.W.3d 145 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001), perm. appeal denied, (Oct. 8, 2001) (holding father liable under family purpose doctrine finding father purchased vehicle for son’s personal use and therefore son’s use of vehicle for pleasure furthered purpose of father).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

The book is now available electronically by subscription at The new format allows us to keep the book current as new opinions are released. BirdDog Law also has John's Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Statutes available by subscription, as well as multiple free resources to help Tennessee lawyers serve their clients

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