Truck Owner Not Liable for Sister-in-Law’s Tennesssee Truck Accident

In a recent Tennessee car accident case, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for defendant on the theories of family purpose doctrine and negligent entrustment. In Daniels v. Huffaker, No. E2014-00869-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2015), plaintiff’s vehicle was hit by a truck driven by Huffaker as Huffaker drove to her boyfriend’s apartment. The truck driven by Huffaker was owned by Mr. Norris, Huffaker’s brother-in-law, who was deployed on active duty to Iraq at the time of the accident. While Mr. Norris was in Iraq, Huffaker split her time between her boyfriend’s apartment and her sister’s (Ms. Norris’s) home. Ms. Norris allowed Huffaker to drive Mr. Norris’s truck during his deployment since the truck was not otherwise in use. By the time of the appeal, Mr. Norris had conceded that Huffaker was a permissive user of the truck.

Plaintiff sued Huffaker and Mr. Norris for her damages related to the accident, making claims against Mr. Norris under the theories of the family purpose doctrine and negligent entrustment. Because Huffaker was never properly served, Mr. Norris was ultimately the only defendant in the case. After a hearing, the trial court granted Mr. Norris’s motion for summary judgment on both of plaintiff’s theories of liability, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Court first addressed plaintiff’s reliance on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-311(a). According to this statute, in cases for damages arising from an automobile accident, “proof of ownership of the vehicle shall be prima facie evidence that the vehicle at the time of the cause of action sued on was being operated and used with authority, consent, and knowledge of the owner….” The statute then goes on to address an agency/employment relationship, which the Court noted did not apply in the instant case. The Court pointed out that while this statute did establish prima facie evidence that “Ms. Huffaker was driving the truck on the day of the accident with Mr. Norris’s authority, knowledge, and consent as the truck’s owner,” the statute did not create a cause of action or “create strict liability for a vehicle owner anytime someone was allowed to drive his or her vehicle[.]”

With the finding of prima facie evidence of consent sorted out, the Court went on to explore the family purpose doctrine, ultimately affirming the trial court’s decision that plaintiff could not prove essential elements of this theory. To proceed under the family purpose doctrine, a plaintiff must be able to show that the owner was the head of the operator’s household—here, that Mr. Norris was the head of Huffaker’s household. “Appropriate factors to consider include whether there is a family relationship between the owner and the driver and whether the owner has a duty to support the driver.” Here, although the owner and driver were brother-in-law and sister-in-law, the trial court found that the driver was not an “immediate family member” and that she was only a “transient visitor” in the Norris household. The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that Huffaker “gave no indication…that she intended to remain for an indefinite period of time or maintain permanent status” in the Norris’s home. Further, the fact that Huffaker testified that she may have paid rent to Ms. Norris showed that she was more akin to a tenant than a household member. Accordingly, plaintiff’s claims under the family purpose doctrine failed.

The Court next affirmed the trial court’s findings that plaintiff would not be able to prove an essential element of negligent entrustment. Under a negligent entrustment theory, plaintiff must show that “a chattel was entrusted to one incompetent to use it with knowledge of the incompetence, and that its use was the proximate cause of injury or damage to another.” (citations omitted). Here, plaintiff relied on the fact that Huffaker was “unfamiliar with the truck” and that she did not have a valid license to show that Huffaker was incompetent to operate the truck. Because plaintiff offered no evidence that the truck in question required special knowledge or instruction for its operation, though, the Court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that general unfamiliarity with it (a regular pick-up truck) would render one incompetent to drive it. Regarding Huffaker’s lack of a valid license, the Court stated that “in Tennessee negligent entrustment cannot be inferred from the mere fact that the driver did not have a driver’s license.” (citations omitted). Further, regarding both the license and the speeding citations that led to the license revocation, the Court held that plaintiff had offered no evidence that Mr. or Ms. Norris had any knowledge of these facts before allowing Huffaker to drive the truck. Because plaintiff could not show that Mr. Norris knew he was entrusting his truck to someone incompetent to operate it, summary judgment as to negligent entrustment was affirmed.

While this case resulted in the unfortunate result of a plaintiff with no one to look to for damages, the record as presented on appeal indicates plaintiff failed to present evidence to create a factual issue regarding whether Mr. or Ms. Norris knew about Huffaker’s prior speeding violations, which ultimately resulted in Huffaker’s suspended license. Based on the Court’s reasoning and dicta, if plaintiff had evidence that Mr. Norris knew about these speeding violations, the negligent entrustment claim could have moved forward.   Proof of knowledge is a challenge, as it must come from one of the people in the defendants’ camp:  brain biopsies to determine “Truth” are not permitted under Tenn. R. Civ. Pro. 35.

While it appears that this is a case of insufficient evidence from plaintiff, you also have to wonder how much the underlying facts played into the Court’s decision. Here, plaintiff was asking the Court to find a man financially liable who was serving an active duty tour in Iraq at the time of the accident. Getting a court to make a soldier foot the bill for a car accident his sister-in-law caused while he was at war is a tall order. To succeed in those circumstances, plaintiff would have most likely needed to carefully and explicitly develop her factual support, something this plaintiff was unable to do.