Who is Liable if a Driver's Ed Student Crashes?

Student drivers or their parents can be legally responsible for a car accident. Driving instructors and driving schools may also be on the hook.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen drivers (16-19) are at a higher risk of car crashes than any other age group. Teens are learning how to drive and are more likely than experienced drivers to make critical errors that lead to accidents.
If you've been involved in an accident with a student driver, you probably have a lot of questions and concerns. Who is legally responsible for the accident? Who has the ability to pay for your injuries and accident-related losses (called "damages")?
In this article, we'll walk you through some of your legal options. You may be able to file a car accident insurance claim or car accident lawsuit against one or more of the following depending on the circumstances of the accident:
  • the student driver
  • the student driver's parents
  • the driving instructor, or
  • the driving school.

Let's take a closer look at each of these options.

Claims Against the Student Driver

You may be able to get compensation for your injuries and losses directly from the student driver, most likely through the student driver's insurer. You'll have to show that the student driver was "negligent." All drivers, including student drivers, have a duty to drive in a reasonably safe manner. If you can show that the student who crashed into you wasn't driving in a safe manner, the student may be liable for your injuries and losses. Even student drivers have a legal duty to follow the rules of the road, including obeying stop signs and traffic signals, checking blind spots before changing lanes, yielding correctly, and obeying posted speed limits.

Student drivers may be covered by their own car insurance policies or they may be "covered drivers" under someone else's policy.

Claims Against the Student Driver's Parents

Many student drivers are teenagers learning how to drive with a learner's permit. Parents can be legally and financially responsible when their learner driver causes a car accident under different legal theories. Some states have vicarious liability laws that hold parents responsible for their teens' negligence. The purpose of these laws is to allow an injured person to sue someone who can foot the bill (directly or through an insurance company) for their damages.

Parents may also be responsible under a negligent entrustment theory if they knew (or should have known) their teen driver was a danger on the road and let the teenager drive anyway. For example, let's say Emma is a 15-year-old student driver who is logging practice hours in her parents' car. Emma's parents know that she has already gotten into a fender bender in a parking lot and has been ticketed for running a red light. Still, they allow her to drive to a concert with her 18-year-old cousin. If Emma causes a traffic accident while on the way home from the concert, Emma's parents will likely have to pay for the injuries and losses she causes because they carelessly allowed her to drive their car when they knew she wasn't yet road ready.

Finally, some states have laws that require parents or guardians to agree to accept responsibility for a minor teen's driving when the teen applies for a learner's permit or driver's license.

The best way for parents to protect themselves is to add teen drivers to their car insurance policy. Learn more about when parents may be liable for their teen driver and how teen car accidents impact parents' car insurance.

Claims Against the Instructor

Many student drivers participate in behind-the-wheel training at licensed driving schools. If an accident happens during a driving lesson, the driving instructor may share fault with the student driver.

Driving instructors have a duty to keep an experienced set of eyes on the road alongside the student driver. Students rely on an instructor's expertise to learn how to drive safely. A professional instructor is also trained to intervene during an emergency. Instructors who fail to take reasonable steps to prevent an accident may be on the hook for damages their students cause.

For example, let's say Ian is an instructor at Discount Driving School (DDS). While giving a lesson to a student driver, Sarah, Ian is on his phone sending texts and playing games. Sarah runs a red light and crashes into a truck. The truck driver can file a claim against Sarah and Ian because both were careless in their actions. Had Ian been paying attention, he could have stepped on the dual control brakes in the driver's ed car and prevented the accident.

Claims Against the Driving School

If you are involved in an accident with a student driver, the driving school itself may be on the hook for your damages depending on the circumstances, but it gets a little more complicated. Let's look at a few potential legal theories.

Respondeat Superior. You may be able to hold the driving school liable under a theory called "respondeat superior" meaning "let the master answer." Under this theory, an employer can be liable for an employee's actions if the employee was on the clock and engaged in work-related duties at the time of the accident. For example, the truck driver in the above example could file a car accident lawsuit against Sarah, Ian, and Discount Driving School. DDS has a duty to make sure that its employees are properly trained and to manage its driving instructors carefully.

Negligent Hiring. A driving school can also be liable if it doesn't take the time to properly check a potential employee's background or if it hires someone it knew (or should have known) would be a poor employee. Let's say that a quick background check would have revealed that driving instructor Ian had three misdemeanor reckless driving convictions. If DDS hired Ian without performing a background check or knew about his poor driving record and hired him anyway, the truck driver can sue DDS for its negligence in hiring Ted as an instructor.

Improper Maintenance of Vehicles. If a driving school sends students out on the road in cars that have faulty equipment—for example, malfunctioning headlights, bald tires, or improperly maintained brakes—and this faulty equipment causes a car accident, you can bring a claim against the driving school for its negligence in properly maintaining its vehicles.

Getting Legal Help

If you've been involved in a car accident with a student driver, you have options. Talk to a lawyer to figure out who is legally responsible for the accident and who may be in the best position to cover your bills.

Learn more about how an attorney can you with your car accident claim. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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