According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drivers aged 16 to 19 are the highest risk for causing and being involved in car accidents, compared to all other age groups. Besides obvious safety concerns, here’s another potential worry for parents: If their teenager causes a car accident, the parent could also be legally liable, even if they weren’t the ones driving. Let's dig a little deeper into this issue.
In assessing fault for a car accident, by far the most commonly-applied legal concept is negligence. The theory of negligence basically states that a driver has a duty to drive in a reasonably safe way. If a driver fails to meet that duty, and another person gets injured, the negligent driver can be legally liable for the resulting damages (medical bills, lost wages, vehicle damage, and other losses).
The duties imposed under the fault concept of negligence apply to all drivers, including teenagers. It does not matter that they are less experienced or less skilled than other drivers on the road. They are still held to the same legal obligation to drive in a reasonably safe way.
In certain situations, the teen’s parents could also be liable to pay for the damages resulting from their teen’s car accident. The exact theory for imposing this liability will depend on the circumstances of the accident and the state in which it occurred. But in general, this kind of parental liability for the negligence of a teen driver is created in one of three ways.
Under this legal theory, a parent can be liable when their teen causes a car accident, if the parent knew or should have known that the teen driver was a danger to others on the road.
For example, let’s say the parents of a teen driver named Charlie know that even though he has his driver’s license, he has little experience with highway and city driving, has been in three accidents in less than a year, and has been ticketed twice in that time (once for reckless driving). They agree to allow him to borrow the family car for a cross-country summer road trip with his high school friends that include drives through downtown New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
During the road trip, Charlie causes a car accident. Charlie's parents are potentially on the hook for any damages resulting from the accident, under the legal theory of negligent entrustment.
Vicarious liability states the principal (here, the parent) will be liable for the wrongdoing of its agent (here, the teen driver) if the agent is acting under the direction and authority of the principal.
Depending on the state or jurisdiction, this type of liability may sometimes be referred to as the “family use” or “family purpose” doctrine. Under this theory of vicarious liability, parents can be liable if their teen driver causes a car accident while pursuing any family “purpose” or “use.” Generally speaking, this purpose can be almost anything, as long as the parent has control over the teen driver’s use of the vehicle.
For instance, if the parent asks the teen driver to make a quick run to the grocery store to pick up some milk, the parent could be liable if the teen driver causes an accident during this errand. The parent can still be liable even if, rather than going to the store, the teen driver merely goes on a pleasure trip around the neighborhood and gets into an accident.
A few states (California and Florida are two notable examples) require parents of new teen drivers to assume their minor child’s liability if their child is responsible for causing a car accident. The parents usually agree to this when they sign their child’s driver’s license application.
A parent will not be liable if they do not have legal custody of the child when the accident occurs. Also, parents generally won’t be liable for their teen driver once the child reaches the age of majority (18 years) and the vehicle is legally owned by the child (it’s titled in the child's name).
For the most part, as long as the teen driver has a driver’s license, the parents have properly added their child to their car insurance policy, and there are adequate policy limits in place, it won’t usually matter who’s legally liable for causing the accident, at least from a financial perspective. This is because the car insurance company will pay out damages resulting from an accident. One exception to this general rule is if the teen driver’s wrongdoing isn’t negligent, but criminal. All car insurance policies will exclude from coverage any claim resulting from the criminal act of an insured. Learn more about the role of insurance in a car accident case.