Young v. Beck – 4/5/2011

April 11, 2011

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That The Family-Purpose Doctrine Is Still Valid in Arizona.

The Becks provided their seventeen-year-old son Jason with a sport-utility vehicle for his use in traveling to and from school, work, and church, as well as for social and recreational purposes.  After Jason got into an accident, his parents instructed him not to “taxi” his friends or to drive their girlfriends home.  About a month after the accident, Jason’s mother gave him permission to drive the vehicle to his friend’s house, spend the night there, and drive home the next day.  She did not give him permission to use the vehicle for any other purpose.  That night, however, Jason drove around with several friends as they threw eggs at houses and parked cars.  On the way to drop off one of his friends, Jason’s vehicle collided with a vehicle driven by Amy Young, who was seriously injured.

Young sued Jason and the Becks, alleging that the Becks were liable for Jason’s negligence under the family purpose doctrine.  On cross-motions for partial summary judgment regarding the applicability of the doctrine, the superior court ruled in favor of Young.  The parties entered into a high-low settlement agreement, under which the amount of damages the Becks would pay Young depended on whether the summary-judgment ruling was affirmed or reversed on appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.  The Supreme Court likewise affirmed, rejecting the Becks’ three arguments:  (1) that the legislature had abrogated the family-purpose doctrine, (2) that the Court should abandon the doctrine because it lacks a viable legal basis or public-policy justification, and (3) that the lower courts had misapplied the doctrine in this case.

The Becks first argued that the legislature abrogated the family-purpose doctrine when, in 1987, it abolished joint-and-several liability for most cases.  The Court concluded, however, that the legislature did not use language that clearly manifested an intent to change the common-law family-purpose doctrine.  In particular, one of the exceptions to the abolition of joint-and-several liability applies when “[t]he other person was acting as the agent or servant of the party.”  A.R.S. § 12-2506(D)(2).  And the family-purpose doctrine, as adopted by the Court in 1919, expressly rested on agency principles.  See Benton v. Regeser, 20 Ariz. 273, 179 P. 966 (1919).  The Court also pointed to its more recent case of Wiggs v. City of Phoenix, 198 Ariz. 367, 10 P.3d 625 (2000), which, like this case, addressed a form of vicarious liability and which held that the agency exception to joint-and-several liability made “express that which is implicit – the statute does not affect the doctrine of vicarious liability.”

The Court also rejected the Becks’ argument that the legislature preempted the family-purpose doctrine with the Financial Responsibility Act, which requires that vehicle owners carry liability insurance and that insurance policies cover all permissive drivers.  The Act, the Court said, does not contain language indicating that the legislature intended to affect the family-purpose doctrine in any way, and “[r]equiring all Arizona vehicle owners to carry liability insurance coverage with minimum limits is not inconsistent with imposing vicarious liability under the family purpose doctrine.”

The Court also declined the Becks’ invitation to abandon the family-purpose doctrine on its own accord.  The Court first noted that the purpose of the doctrine is to ensure that an injured party may recover from the financially responsible person.  The Court was “not convinced” by the Becks’ argument that the Financial Responsibility Act rendered this purpose moot because “a law requiring minimum liability coverage of only $15,000 per person and $30,000 per occurrence [does not] guarantee[] that victims of serious accidents caused by young, inexperienced, and financially insecure drivers will be fully compensated.”  The Court was likewise unconvinced that the policy goals behind the family-purpose doctrine were any less strong than they were when it adopted the doctrine almost a century ago.  The Court also pointed to numerous other states which continue to follow the doctrine either as a matter of common law or statute.  Thus, although it recognized that policy arguments exist for and against the doctrine, in light of stare decisis principles, the Court found “no compelling reason to abrogate the doctrine.”

Finally, the Court rejected the Becks’ argument that the lower courts misapplied the family-purpose doctrine in this case.  Specifically, the Becks argued that the doctrine did not apply because Jason did not have his parents’ express or implied permission to use the vehicle when he hit Young and, in fact, was using the vehicle in violation of their specific restrictions on its use.  The Court concluded, however, that “a deviation from the terms of consent will not necessarily relieve ahead of the family from liability” under the family purpose doctrine.  “To hold otherwise would enable parents to immunize themselves from liability by imposing general, unrealistic, or unenforced limitations on their child’s use of the vehicle.”  In this case, it was undisputed that the Becks furnished the vehicle for Jason’s general use and that the night of the accident Jason had his mother’s permission to use the vehicle.  These facts were sufficient to hold as a matter of law that the family-purpose doctrine applied.

Justice Pelander authored the opinion for a unanimous Court.