Yes the owner is usually liable for the permissive driver’s negligence.
The family purpose doctrine is a court-created legal fiction by which the owner of an automobile is held vicariously liable when the car is negligently driven by a member of the immediate household. The fiction is predicated on the assumption that the driver is implementing a “family purpose,” even if the driver is only using the automobile for his own pleasure or convenience.
The car must be driven with the permission of the owner, but this may be inferred from very general circumstances․
In order for the family purpose doctrine to apply in Tennessee, two requirements must be met, namely, that the head of the household maintains the vehicle for the purpose of providing pleasure or comfort to his or her family and the driver was using the vehicle at the time of the injury-producing accident in furtherance of that purpose and with either the express or implied permission of the owner.
The true test is whether the driver was engaged in the owner’s business at the time of the accident, with business here meaning the furnishing of pleasure to the owner’s family. The family purpose doctrine applies to adults as well as to minors and is imposed as a matter of public policy.
Thurmon v. Sellers, 62 S.W.3d 145, 156 (Tenn.Ct.App.2001)
Tenn.Code Ann. § 55-10-311 reads as follows:
(a) In all actions for injury to persons and/or to property caused by the negligent operation or use of any automobile, auto truck, motorcycle, or other motor propelled vehicle within this state, proof of ownership of such 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 in the very transaction out of which the injury or cause of action arose, and such proof of ownership likewise shall be prima facie evidence that the vehicle was then and there being operated by the owner, or by the owner’s servant, for the owner’s use and benefit and within the course and scope of the servant’s employment․
(b) This section is in the nature of remedial legislation and it is the legislative intent that it be given a liberal construction.
Tenn.Code Ann. § 55-10-312 provides that
[p]roof of the registration of the motor-propelled vehicle in the name of any person shall be prima facie evidence of ownership of the motor-propelled vehicle by the person in whose name the vehicle is registered; and such proof of registration shall likewise be prima facie evidence that the vehicle was then and there being operated by the owner or by the owner’s servant for the owner’s use and benefit and within the course and scope of the servant’s employment.
In summary, Tenn.Code Ann. § 55-10-312 states that “proof of ․ registration” of a vehicle is “prima facie evidence of ownership” while Tenn.Code Ann. § 55-1-311 provides that “proof of ownership” is prima facie evidence that the vehicle, at the time of the accident, was being operated “with authority, consent and knowledge of the owner” and “within the course and scope of the servant’s [i.e., in this case, the driver’s] employment.”