Am I Liable If My Teen Driver Causes a Car Accident?

In certain situations (and certain states), a parent can be financially responsible for damages when a teen driver causes an accident.

By , J.D. Villanova University School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 2/28/2024

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. Once concern that might crop up is a parent's potential liability for a car accident involving their teen driver. Here's what to know at the outset:

  • Inexperience and risky behavior are big reasons why drivers aged 16 to 19 are three times more likely to die in a crash, compared with drivers 20 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • A parent/guardian may be liable when their teen driver causes a car accident, depending on state law and the circumstances behind the crash.
  • In all but the rarest situations, a parent/guardian's own car insurance policy will cover injuries and other losses resulting from an accident involving their teen driver.

Legal Theories Behind Car Accident Fault

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.

Parent/Guardian Liability for Teen Drivers' Accidents

In certain situations, the teen's parents or legal guardians could also be liable for the losses ("damages" in the language of the law) 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.

Negligent Entrustment

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
  • he has little experience with highway and city driving
  • he has been in three accidents in less than a year, and
  • he's been ticketed twice in that time (once for reckless driving).

Knowing all this, they still agree to allow Charlie 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, since they certainly knew that he posed a particular danger to others on the road, and they didn't do enough (or anything at all) to prevent Charlie from driving.

Vicarious Liability for a Child's Actions

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." 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.

Driving Privilege Application Liability

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.

A Parent/Guardian's Car Insurance Likely Covers a Teen Driver

For the most part, as long as the teen driver has a driver's license, and 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.

Will My Insurance Premium Go Up If My Teen Driver Causes a Car Accident?

Simply adding a teen driver to your policy will cause your premium to rise. Factors like what kind of car your teen drives and how much your teens drives can also impact insurance rates. You might be able to lower your premium if your teen:

  • completes a driver training program
  • gets good grades
  • drives an older model, used car, and
  • drives limited miles.

If your teen driver is involved in an accident, you can definitely expect your premium to go up. If your teen was at fault for the accident and your car insurance company has to pay thousands of dollars under your liability coverage, expect your premium to skyrocket.

In some situations, an insurer might even choose to not renew your policy if your teen has too many at-fault accidents and traffic tickets within a certain time period.

Can Teens Get Their Own Car Insurance?

Car insurance providers consider teens to be high-risk drivers, which means insuring a teen driver is expensive.

  • Teens who are 18 or 19 can legally sign a contract and buy their own insurance in most states.
  • Minor teens will likely need a parent or guardian to co-sign an insurance policy, which means that parents are still going to be responsible for what happens when their teen driver is on the road.

Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state to learn more about what teens need to do to own, register, and insure their own vehicles.

What if My Teenage Child Drove My Car Without My Permission?

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.

Can Parents Be Sued in a Personal Injury Lawsuit for Their Teenager's Accident?

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).

What Will the Other Driver Need to Prove?

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.

What Damages Can Parents Be Found Liable For If Their Child Causes a Car Accident?

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, 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.

Potential Defenses to Parental Liability for a Teen Child's Accident

A parent/guardian might be able to avoid liability for a teen driver's car accident if they can show that:

  • they didn't have legal custody of the child when the accident occurred (discussed above)
  • the child wasn't living with them at the time, and/or
  • they had no reasonable ability to control the child's behavior.

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).

Getting Help When a Minor Child Causes a Car Accident

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.

Car Accident Claim Tool

Have you been in a car accident?

Take our free car accident quiz to find out if you're likely to get a settlement.

Make the Most of Your Claim
Get the compensation you deserve.
We've helped 215 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you