Liability for a Spouse’s Negligence
When is a spouse liable for a car accident caused by the other spouse?
In Jones v Weaver, 123 F.2d 403 (9th Cir. 1941), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considered this question: Is a husband personally responsible for the negligence of his wife who caused a fatal accident?
Facts of the Case
Mr. Jones and his wife took a road trip from California. The car, purchased with the couple’s joint money, was held in the name of husband and registered to him. When they were in Arizona, the husband was asleep in the back of the car and his wife was driving. She hit another car, killing herself and two other people.
The police determined that Mr. Jones’s wife caused the accident. The estates of both of the deceased sued husband. Each one obtained a jury verdict in the amount of $10,000 against him. Mr. Jones appealed both and the Court heard the two appeals together.
Car as Community Property in Arizona
Husband claims that Arizona law applies since the accident happened in Arizona. Under Arizona law, a car purchased with joint money is community property of the couple.
When one spouse is driving, she is acting as the agent of the community, not her spouse. Therefore, any damages must be claimed against the community, not the spouse.
In Donn v. Kunz, 79 P.2d 965, the Arizona court reviewed a similar case. In that case, a wife’s negligent driving of a community car caused injuries to third persons. It found that any damages were a community debt. Since the community expired when the wife died, it was not possible to hold the husband liable.
The 9th Circuit noted that the community, in Arizona, is a separate entity apart from the husband and wife. It was upon this basis that the Donn v. Kunz court determined that the husband could not be individually liable.
California Law Applies, Not Arizona Law
But does Arizona law apply? The 9th Circuit Court cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling on that issue. It said that in cases between citizens of different states, federal courts must follow the conflict-of-laws rules in the state where the court sits.
In this case, the federal district courts hearing the cases sat in Arizona. Therefore, Arizona law determined conflict of laws issues.
In Arizona, the character of property acquired during a marriage is determined by the law of the couple’s residence. The District Courts, then, were obliged to look to California to determine the ownership of the automobile involved in the accident.
California does not recognize any legal entity separate and distinct from the spouses. In California, the husband is given the entire management and control of community personal property.
Because of that, the Court held that the decision in Donn v. Kunz does not apply to this case. Instead, the “family car doctrine” of Arizona applies. Under that doctrine, the husband is individually liable for the negligence of his wife in driving the family automobile.
The 9th Circuit Court considered and rejected a handful of other issues before affirming the jury verdicts below.