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Atkins v. Foster

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

May 21, 2015



PAMELA L. REEVES, District Judge.

This case arises out of an automobile accident that occurred on April 4, 2011, in which a 2006 Chrysler minivan driven by Aaron Foster collided with a vehicle driven by Kitty Atkins. The minivan driven by Aaron Foster was owned by his father, Ronald Foster. Defendant Ronald Foster has moved for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claims against him. The plaintiffs have responded in opposition.[1] The issue before the court is whether Defendant Ronald Foster is liable under a theory of negligence for failing to anticipate that his adult son might take his vehicle without authority, become intoxicated, and injure plaintiffs.

The court has carefully considered the motion and, for the reasons stated herein, finds that Ronald Foster is not liable for the actions of his adult son, and will grant Ronald Foster's motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

This case arises out of an automobile accident that occurred on April 4, 2011, in which a 2006 Chrysler minivan operated by Aaron Foster collided with a 2004 Dodge Neon operated by Kitty Atkins. Mary Shepard, Tommy Shepard, and Andrew Shepard were passengers in the Atkins' vehicle. Ronald Foster is the owner of the 2006 Chrysler minivan that was involved in the accident of April 4, 2011. Aaron Foster is the son of Ronald Foster.

Ronald Foster states that his son has not lived in his home for several years and was not a resident of his household on April 4, 2011. The last time that Aaron permanently lived in the Foster home was sometime in 2004, when Aaron was still in high school. When Aaron lived in the family home, he did not have a driver's license, but later obtained his license after he left the family home. After Aaron left in 2004, he got married and had a child, lived in various places, and did not return to the family home apart from occasional visits, for no longer than a month at a time. Ronald Foster did not provide his son with any financial support after he left the family home in 2004. Id.

After Aaron moved out of his father's house, he was arrested on three separate occasions for driving under the influence. Ronald Foster was aware of Aaron's three DUI charges and substance abuse issues.

In January 2009, Aaron stayed at the Foster home on a temporary basis for less than a month while he was in-between residences. During this time, Aaron was specifically instructed by his father not to drive his parents' vehicles. Despite this admonition, Aaron took one of his father's vehicles from the home without permission. When Ronald Foster discovered the vehicle missing, he reported it as stolen to the Wilkesboro Police Department. Aaron was later arrested and convicted of charges in relation to the theft of the vehicle, along with DUI/DWI. Aaron did not return to the family home for any significant length of time after January 9, 2009, although he spent an occasional night there, including a period of time over Christmas 2010, without any further incidents involving theft of his father's vehicles.

In April 2011, Aaron was residing in Hickory, North Carolina at a group home facility because of substance abuse issues. On April 3, 2011, he obtained leave from the group home to travel to Wilkesboro for a few days to attend a court hearing involving arrangements for visitation with his minor daughter. Ronald Foster picked up Aaron from his residence in Hickory, and brought him to the family home in Wilkesboro. During the drive from Hickory to Wilkesboro, Ronald told Aaron that he was not to drive or do anything with any of his vehicles. They arrived home around 8:00 p.m. and watched TV together until around 11:00 p.m., when Ronald and his wife went to bed. Id. Ronald Foster kept the keys for all of his vehicles on a key holder pegboard in the dining room of his home, as he had done since 1993.

Ronald Foster left his 2006 Chrysler minivan parked in the driveway of his home because he planned to drive it to work early the next morning. It was still in the driveway when he went to bed around 11:00 p.m. In the early morning of April 4, 2011, when he got up, Ronald noticed that Aaron was not on the couch where he had been sleeping. Ronald went out to the porch to see if Aaron was outside, and noticed that the minivan was gone from the driveway. Ronald realized that the minivan had been taken by Aaron from the driveway at some point during the night without his knowledge, and he reported the minivan as stolen to the Wilkes County Sheriff's Department.

Ronald Foster later learned that Aaron had been involved in an accident in Tennessee and had been arrested in Loudon County, Tennessee, and charged with evading arrest, reckless endangerment, DUI, vehicular assault, driving on a suspended license, no seat belt, following too closely, theft of property (2006 Chrysler minivan), and one count of evading arrest. Aaron entered a guilty plea to vehicular assault, evading arrest, and theft with the Criminal Court of Loudon County, Tennessee, and was imprisoned in the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg, Tennessee.

Plaintiffs have filed the instant action against both Ronald and Aaron Foster, alleging that Ronald Foster is liable for plaintiffs' injuries under the theories of (1) negligence and/or negligent entrustment of the minivan to Aaron because he had knowledge that Aaron had prior DUI offenses and had a suspended license, but allowed Aaron access, or failed to take reasonable steps to prevent him from accessing the keys to the minivan; (2) vicarious liability under the Family Purpose Doctrine; and (3) vicarious liability under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-311, which provides for prima facie evidence of an owner-driver agency relationship.

Ronald Foster previously filed a motion for summary judgment that was denied by the court as premature because the parties had not undertaken any discovery in the case. The court's order reserved to Ronald Foster leave to re-file the motion after the parties completed discovery. Ronald Foster now moves for summary judgment, stating that (1) he cannot be liable under a theory of negligent entrustment because there was no entrustment of the minivan by him to Aaron as a matter of law; (2) he cannot be liable under the Family Purpose Doctrine because Aaron was not using the minivan with either his express or implied consent, and was not driving the minivan in furtherance of a family purpose; and (3) there is evidence in the record which rebuts the prima facie presumption of the owner-driver agency relationship contained in Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-311. In support of his motion, Ronald Foster relies upon his previously filed Affidavit in this matter, including attachments, along with his deposition testimony.

Plaintiffs respond: (1) Ronald Foster's testimony alone is insufficient to overcome the presumption set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 55-10-311 and 312, establishing vicarious liability for the vehicle owner; and (2) because Ronald left the keys to the minivan in plain sight of Aaron and took no other steps to prevent Aaron from taking the vehicle, a reasonable juror could find that Ronald Foster was negligent.

On March 29, 2012, Aaron Foster, acting pro se, filed an answer to plaintiffs' complaint. Aaron stated that his father had no part in his actions of April 4, 2011, and had no idea that he had taken the minivan. Aaron further stated ...

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