Are parents liable for their teenager’s car accidents?
The long-awaited moment when your teenage child gets their driver’s license is something to celebrate – suddenly, they can drive themselves to school, drive themselves to their first job, and maybe even help get their siblings where they need to go.
But there is also a dark side that many parents don’t consider – will you be liable when your inexperienced teen child crashes your car and injures somebody? How does that work?
Below, we will look at four ways that parents can be held liable for their teenage child’s auto accidents, including:
- When the child is on the parent’s insurance policy,
- When the parent cosigns the teen’s driver’s license application,
- The doctrine of negligent entrustment, and
- When the family purpose doctrine applies to make a parent liable for the teen’s car accidents.
Parents are Liable for Their Teenager’s Car Accident When the Teen is Covered by the Parents’ Insurance Policy
If you add your child to your insurance policy (which most parents do), technically that doesn’t make you liable for their crashes, but your insurance policy will be on the hook for any damages after a car wreck caused by your teen – which could result in increased premiums or even cancellation of your insurance policy when they are forced to pay a settlement or verdict.
If your teenage child is an authorized driver on your insurance policy, your insurance company will be required to defend and pay any claims resulting from your child’s negligence while driving.
Parents are Liable for Their Teenager’s Car Accident When They Cosigned the Teenager’s Driver’s License Application
Did you cosign your teenager’s driver’s license application?
Most parents do – what mom or dad is going to say, “No you can’t drive,” after all the time and effort you have spent teaching them to drive, paying for driver’s ed classes, and waiting for the glorious day to arrive?
What’s the downside?
SC Code Section 56-1-110 says that any adult who cosigns for a minor’s beginner’s permit, instruction permit, or driver’s license will be jointly and severally liable for the minor’s negligence or willful misconduct while driving:
Any negligence or wilful misconduct of a minor when driving a motor vehicle upon a highway must be imputed to the person who has signed the application of such minor for a beginner’s permit, instruction permit, or driver’s license, which person is jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damage caused by such negligence or wilful misconduct, except that if such minor is protected by a policy of liability insurance in the form and in the amounts as required under Chapter 9 of this title and Sections 38-77-140 through 38-77-310, then such parent or guardian or other responsible adult is not subject to the liability otherwise imposed under this section.
If the teenager is covered by an insurance policy that meets SC’s minimum requirements, then the parent (cosigner) is not liable under this code section.
Parents can be Liable for Their Teenaged Child’s Negligence Under the Doctrine of Negligent Entrustment
It makes a difference if the teenager is driving their own vehicle or if they are driving their parent’s car.
When a parent allows their teenager to drive the parent’s vehicle knowing that there is an unreasonable risk of harm because of the teenager’s youth or inexperience, the parent can be held liable for a car accident under the theory of negligent entrustment.
As the SC Court of Appeals said in Lydia v. Horton:
It is negligence to permit a third person to use a thing or to engage in an activity which is under the control of the actor, if the actor knows or should know that such person intends or is likely to use the thing or to conduct himself in the activity in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others…
One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.
The doctrine of negligent entrustment doesn’t just apply to teenagers and parents – if you loan your vehicle to an alcoholic, drug addict, or someone who “because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise,” poses an “unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others,” you can be held liable for the driver’s car accident.
Parents Might be Liable for Their Teenager’s Car Accident Under the Family Purpose Doctrine
Even if a parent does not cosign for their child’s driver’s license and gets their child a separate insurance policy, the parents could be liable for their child’s car accident under the “family purpose doctrine” if the teenager is driving the parent’s vehicle.
According to the SC Court of Appeals in Evans v. Cusack, the family purpose doctrine is based on the law of agency:
Under the family purpose doctrine, the head of a family who owns, furnishes, and maintains a vehicle for the general use and convenience of his family is liable for the negligence of a family member having general authority to operate the vehicle for such a purpose… “one ‘who has made it his business to furnish a car for the use of his family is liable as principal or master when such business is being carried out by a family member using the vehicle for its intended purpose, the family member thereby filling the role of agent or servant.’”
In summary, it’s very difficult to avoid parental liability for a child’s auto accidents, although you could:
- Not cosign for their driver’s license (but someone may have to cosign),
- Get them a separate insurance policy, and
- Never let them drive your vehicles (but their vehicle will have to be in some adult’s name while they are a minor).
If you have been hurt in a car wreck in SC, your Myrtle Beach auto accident attorney on the Axelrod team will meet with you, investigate the accident, help you to determine all possible sources of recovery (including the parents of teen drivers), and help you to recover the maximum damages possible under SC law and the facts of your case through a settlement or lawsuit.