Parents of teen drivers probably have enough to worry about when it comes to handing over the car keys to their kids, so it won't be welcome news to hear that in some situations, parents can be held civilly liable for damages resulting from a car accident caused by a child who is under 18.
There are several legal doctrines that might apply to hold a parent liable for injuries and vehicle damage caused by a minor child's driving, including:
- statutory liability
- negligent entrustment of a vehicle to a child
- negligent oversight over the child, and
- the "family purpose doctrine.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these legal theories.
State Law Could Make Parents Liable for Teen Drivers
First, all states have passed some version of a law that holds parents legally responsible for certain actions of their children (shoplifting, vandalism, assault, and many other kinds of conduct). However, not every state’s law specifically holds parents liable for their child’s negligent driving.
For example, one state’s law might say that, if a child under the age of 18 negligently operates a motor vehicle, that negligence is imputed to any parent who has custody of the child, or who signed the child’s driver’s license application as a sponsor or co-signer. If the child doesn’t live with both parents, his or her negligence will be imputed only to the parent who signed the child’s driver’s license application. In this state, any parent who meets these requirements will be deemed vicariously liable for the car accident, along with the child. Learn more: When You are Responsible for a Car Accident.
The limits of a parent’s financial liability for a teen driver's car accident may also be defined in the statute.
In a statutory liability case, the plaintiff (the driver or passenger injured in the crash caused by the teen driver) sues the parent as well as the child, but the plaintiff is not claiming that the parent was him/herself negligent. The parent is statutorily liable for the child’s negligence based on his/her legal status as the child’s parent.
Negligent Entrustment/Negligent Oversight
In contrast to statutory liability, the negligent entrustment and negligent oversight doctrines have to do with whether the parent was him/herself negligent. If someone sues a parent for negligent entrustment or negligent oversight, he/she must prove that the parent was in fact negligent in order to recover any damages from the parent. (Learn more: What is Negligence?)
Negligent entrustment means that the owner of the vehicle was negligent in deciding to allow someone else to drive the vehicle. An example of negligent entrustment would be a parent allowing a 17 year-old child to drive a family car by himself, even though the parent knows that the child is a horrendous driver who has already caused five accidents. Another example would be giving the child (or anyone, for that matter) the keys to the car when the vehicle owner knows that the child is intoxicated.
Negligent oversight over a child would be something like not keeping proper watch over a child. If the parent knows or reasonably should know that the child has a propensity for taking the parent’s keys and going off in the car without permission, the parent would likely have a duty to take better care of the car keys. The parent might even have a duty to lock up the car keys to keep them away from the child. Negligent oversight differs from negligent entrustment because a negligent entrustment case involves the parent giving the child permission to drive the car; whereas, in a negligent oversight case, the parent has not given the child permission to drive the car, but in fact the child has essentially stolen the parent’s car.
The "Family Purpose" Doctrine
Finally, the "family purpose" doctrine is a separate legal concept that more or less merges the negligent entrustment and negligent oversight doctrines. The actual language of this rule varies from state to state, but, in general, it says that the vehicle’s owner will be held liable for any damages caused while a family member (i.e., the child) is driving the vehicle, whether or not the owner gave the child permission to use the vehicle.
Learn more about Liability Law and Loaning Your Car.