Cima v. Sciaretta
Precedent establishes that a vehicle owner's liability under the family car doctrine encompasses liability for the negligent operation of a family car by a nonfamily member third party operator if a covered family member with general, unrestricted authority to use the vehicle for his or her own pleasure and convenience was a passenger in the vehicle and the third party was operating the car with that family member's consent. Nicholas Sciaretta, Jr., purchased a vehicle for the use of his son, Eric Sciaretta, giving him general authority, without restrictions to use the vehicle for the son's pleasure and convenience. The son permitted Stephen Sorbo to drive the vehicle and was a passenger when Sorbo failed to stop completely at a stop sign and struck a vehicle, injuring its passenger Lauren Cima. Cima brought suit and the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff against Nicholas Sciaretta, Jr., the vehicle's owner, on a count brought under C.G.S. §52-182, the family car doctrine. The defendant appealed claiming, first, that the court improperly admitted evidence of the son having given Sorbo permission to use the vehicle as such evidence was immaterial to establishing an agency relationship between the defendant and Sorbo, which relationship the defendant insisted was necessary to impute Sorbo's liability onto the defendant. The Appellate Court disagreed and affirmed the judgment. Pursuant to its 2007 decision in Chen v. Bernadel which cites the Supreme Court's 1949 decision in Dibble v. Wolff, to impute liability to the defendant under the family car doctrine, the plaintiff needed to show that the defendant granted general authority to his son to use the vehicle for the son's own pleasure and convenience, and in furtherance of that grant of authority, the son authorized Sorbo to operate the vehicle when the accident occurred. Whether the son granted Sorbo permission to drive the vehicle clearly was relevant and material. Secondly, the trial court was not required, as a matter of law, to direct a verdict for the defendant after directing a verdict for the son on the negligence count against him. In these cases, the negligent third party steps into the shoes of the family member. The indirect application of the doctrine does not require a contemporaneous finding of actual liability on the part of the family member passenger.