Handing a teen driver the keys to the family car is often a big moment for a parent or guardian: part rite of passage, part gateway to anxiety over safety and liability for a car accident. Here's what to know at the outset:
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 harm (medical bills, lost income, vehicle damage, and other losses).
The duties imposed under the fault concept of negligence apply to all drivers, including teenagers. It doesn't matter that new drivers are less experienced or less skilled than others on the road; they're still held to the same legal obligation to act with reasonable care and caution in all potential driving situations.
But it's often not just teen drivers themselves who could face liability after causing a car accident.
In certain situations, the teen's parents or legal guardians could also be liable 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 crops up in one of three ways.
Under this legal theory, a parent/guardian can be liable when their teen causes a car accident, if the parent knew or should have known that the teen represented a special danger to others on the road, and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the teen from driving or otherwise lessen the risk of harm.
For example, let's say the parents of 16-year-old Charlie know that his driver's license has been suspended, that he has little experience with highway and city driving, that he has been in three accidents in less than a year, and has been ticketed twice in that time (once for reckless driving). Still, they agree to allow him to borrow the family car for a cross-country summer road trip with his high school friends. 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.
Some states have passed laws specifically holding parents and legal guardians liable for injuries, property damage, and other losses when their minor child's action causes harm to someone else.
In the car accident context in particular, 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 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 might still be liable even if, rather than going to the store, the teen driver takes a high-speed cruise around the neighborhood and gets into an accident.
Some states (California and Florida are two notable examples) require parents/guardians of new teen drivers to assume their minor child's liability if the child is responsible for causing a car accident. The parents/guardians usually assume this kind of liability when they sign their child's driver's license application.
In California, for example, a parent or guardian of a minor driver can be liable for all foreseeable injuries, property damage, and other losses if they loan the teen their car and the teen ends up causing a car accident.
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 might not matter who's legally liable after a accident, at least from a financial perspective. This is because the car insurance company will pay out damages resulting from an accident, up to policy limits.
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 what drivers and vehicles are covered under a car insurance policy.
Under the laws we've discussed so far, if a parent/guardian can be held liable for a teen driver's car accident, it usually doesn't matter whether or not the minor child had permission to drive the car. The parent/guardian is almost always still liable.
In fact, if a minor child has a habit of taking the keys to the family car and getting pulled over, causing property damage, or causing car accidents (like 16-year-old Charlie in our example above), anyone harmed by the teen's behavior might actually have a stronger case against the parent/guardian, under the "negligent entrustment" theory we've already discussed.
If you've read this far, you know the answer here is yes, it's a very real possibility that a parent/guardian of a minor driver could be on the hook if the minor causes a car accident. From a practical standpoint, the less insurance coverage that's available to pay for an injured person's losses, the more likely a parent/guardian is to face legal action (through a personal injury lawsuit, for example).
It depends on the law in the state where the accident happened. In states that have vicarious liability laws making a parent/guardian liable for their minor child's driving-related negligence, the injured person would probably only need to show that the parent/guardian had custody of (or control over) the teen driver at the time of the accident.
If there's no statute-imposed liability, the injured person will probably need to show that the parent/guardian knew (or should have known) that allowing the minor to drive posed a unique danger to others (based on the minor's past behavior, for example), and the parent/guardian failed to take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of harm, as in the negligent entrustment discussion above.
In most states that impose vicarious liability on parents/guardians for car accident-related harm caused by their minor children, the parent/guardian is liable for the whole spectrum of losses ("damages" in the language of the law) just as they would be if they had caused the accident themselves.
A lawsuit under a "negligent entrustment" theory would also open the parent/guardian up to all variety of damages, including any injured person's medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, vehicle damage and other losses resulting from the crash. Learn more about liability for harm caused by a car accident.
A parent/guardian might be able to avoid liability for a teen driver's car accident if they can show that:
Parents and guardians 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).
Parents and legal guardians might need more answers (and more help) than this article can provide when their teen driver causes a car accident. Especially when injuries and other accident-related losses are significant, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a legal professional.
You can use the features on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer in your area, and learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident case.