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

A look at your legal options -- and answers to a few key liability questions -- if you think an unlicensed student driver caused your car accident.

When an unlicensed driver is out on the road learning how to drive (alongside an instructor), things can get a little complicated when it comes to liability for a car accident. If you’re involved in this kind of accident, your options might include bringing an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit against:
  • the student driver directly, for his or her careless driving
  • the instructor for his or her careless supervision or instruction, or
  • the driving school for the negligent actions of its employees, or for its failure to properly maintain its vehicles.

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

Claims Against the Student Driver

Should a driver’s ed student’s carelessness cause your accident, you may be able to seek compensation for your injuries from the student -- or his or her insurer -- directly. Your insurance claim or lawsuit would follow a liability theory called "negligence." Basically, if the student was not driving in a reasonably safe manner based on the circumstances, and caused a traffic accident, the student can be held liable for any injuries and vehicle damage stemming from the crash. Even when students are learning how to drive, if they’re out on the roads and highways they still have a legal duty to drive in a reasonably safe manner. That means obeying stop signs and traffic signals, checking blind spots before changing lanes, yielding correctly, and obeying posted speed limits.

While it's unlikely that the student driver has his or her own car insurance policy, if it's a teen student, chances are he or she is a covered driver under a parent or guardian's car insurance policy.

Claims Against the Instructor

You may also be able to bring a claim against the instructor who was in the car alongside the student.

One of a driver’s ed instructor’s main duties is 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. If the instructor fails to take reasonable steps to prevent an accident, you may bring a claim against him or her -- usually this will trigger the instructor’s business insurance coverage. This claim would also follow a negligence theory because it would allege that the instructor did not act in a reasonably safe manner, by failing to properly intervene, for example.

An example of a negligent instructor would be Ian, who decided to text his friend while his student, Sarah, ran a red light and collided with another car. The driver of that car could bring a claim against both Sarah and Ian because both were careless in their actions. Had Ian been paying attention, he could have stepped on the extra set of 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 might be on the hook for your losses related to the accident, but it gets a little more complicated.

First, the school may be responsible for the carelessness of its employees. Second, the school might be responsible for carelessly hiring a poor instructor who played a part in causing the accident. Finally, if the driving school maintains defective vehicles, it may be directly responsible for the accident.

Vicarious Liability. The driving school is responsible for managing and training its employees. Therefore, the school is "vicariously liable" for most unintentionally harmful actions of employees, as long as the employee was acting in the scope of his or her job. You can bring an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit against the driving school if their employees were careless or reckless on the job, and this caused your accident. For example, if you consider the ABC Driving School who employed Ted in the above example, the driver who was hurt in the accident could bring a claim against the ABC Driving School. This is because ABC has a legal duty to make sure that its employees are trained correctly, and to carefully manage its driving instructors.

Negligent Hiring. Driving schools may be negligent if they don’t take the time to properly check someone out before hiring them as an employee. If a school hires someone they know or should have known would be a poor employee, they may be responsible for that employee’s actions. Let’s say that a quick background check would have revealed that Ted has three misdemeanor reckless driving convictions and one DUI. If ABC Driving School did not conduct a proper review of Ted before hiring him, the driver that Sarah hit could bring a claim against ABC 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 may bring a claim against the driving school itself.

Getting Legal Help

If you’ve been involved in a car accident with a driver’s ed student, it can be a challenge to figure out who might be responsible, and to decide on your best course of action. Consider talking with an experienced personal injury attorney to understand all your options, and to make sure your legal rights are protected.

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