Young v. Beck (CA1 5/20/10)


The question here is whether the family purpose doctrine applies when the use of the family car is contrary to restrictions placed on the driver.

Jason Beck wasn’t allowed to carry passengers, a restriction his parents had instituted after he was in an accident. But that’s what he was doing – having told his mother that he would just drive over to a friend’s house to spend the night – when he caused another accident. Plaintiff made a family-purpose claim against the parents. They argued that since the doctrine applies only if the car was used with their express or implied consent, and since they didn’t consent to what Jason was doing at the time of the accident, they can’t be liable. On cross-motions for summary judgment the trial court ruled for Plaintiff. The parties made a deal on damages in order to appeal liability. This opinion affirms.

It starts off well. The first paragraph does what every opinion should: it tells you immediately what kind of case it is, what the issues are, and what the holding is. But then things go downhill. A boilerplate standard-of-review paragraph signals that the court is reverting to business as usual. Next, it decides to treat family purpose as a strange and unusual legal beast requiring careful and minute inspection. And so we get, completely uselessly, an extended quotation of the trial court’s minute entry and the detailed facts of the 1919 case in which our Supreme Court adopted the doctrine.

After meandering awhile longer through the history and purpose of the doctrine, and cycling back through the facts and arguments once or twice, the court announces that “to ascertain whether the Becks gave implied consent, we must determine if Jason drove the car for a family purpose.” That should cause your logic bone to twinge a bit but the court is apparently reacting to a Beck argument that the family purpose doctrine is based on agency. A quick look at the books will tell you, if you didn’t know already, that that is wrong, which the court takes a couple of long paragraphs to sort of say. Jason used the family car for the convenience of the family. That’s a family purpose. He had permission to do so. His parents are therefore liable.

Having reached this conclusion, the opinion won’t stop, rambling on about how it must be right because other jurisdictions think so, too.

Some opinions seem like a schoolteacher pretending familiarity with the subject when in fact she just read the chapter the night before to keep ahead of the class. You get that impression here even before the court gets mixed up. It justifies the Becks’ liability by pointing out that “both parents were fully aware that Jason previously disregarded driving restrictions they had imposed on him.” But that’s a negligent-entrustment fact, not family purpose. Next, having already specifically said that family purpose doesn’t depend on course-and-scope agency stuff, the court says “we find it unnecessary in this case to attempt to draw any specific boundaries as to when violation of a driving restriction may constitute such a gross deviation by the child as to preclude parental liability under the family purpose doctrine.” This in connection with a case in which the son stole the car from the garage. But “gross deviation” is an agency notion. The point of this opinion is that if there is family-purpose permission, deviation is not an issue.

The Becks also questioned whether family purpose is needed now that its not 1919 anymore.  This was their only good argument. Is that why the court shoves it to a few pages at the end of an 18-page opinion, preferring to write a treatise on a slam-dunk issue of plain-vanilla tort law?  Perhaps not, since its not clear that the court understands the analysis. Having announced that family purpose is a matter of policy, it now treats it like a statute, cites in support of it statutes that actually weaken it, and mentions at least one principle of statutory construction that has absolutely no application here. Reading between the lines, its possible to conclude that the Becks argued the issue a little bass-ackwardly, though we hate to keep making that excuse for courts at the risk of abusing fine attorneys. In any event, the court ends up saying the only thing it should have said, which is that this is an issue for the Supreme Court.