Personal Injury

Parental Responsibility for Child's Accidents

Parental Responsibility for Child's Accidents

A person who is injured in an automobile accident may sue the party or parties responsible for the accident. The action is called a tort action or a personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff will allege that he or she was injured due to the defendant's negligence. Negligence actions can be brought by and against children. Sometimes parents can be held responsible for injuries caused by their child.

Actions against Child Motorists

A motorist has a duty to exercise care to avoid injuring other people. The standard of care, or how the motorist should conduct himself while driving, is referred to as due care or reasonable care under the circumstances. Usually, a child driver is held to the same degree of care as an adult in operating an automobile. Courts reason that a child who engages in an adult activity should be held to an adult standard of care.

Liability of Motorists for Injuries to Children

It is common for car accidents to involve children in some way, for example, where an accident occurs near a school or in areas where children play, such as near parks and playgrounds, or in residential areas. These are also areas where young drivers are likely to found. If a motorist is driving in an area where children are known to be present, the motorist must avoid creating an unreasonable risk of harm to any of the children. The exact duty depends on the probability of causing injury to the child. Where a risk is reasonably foreseeable, the motorist must avoid it, or protect against its occurrence.

The motorist must exercise the care of an ordinarily prudent person to protect children from injury. The level of care depends on the age and nature of the child who is injured. The known characteristics of children, therefore, must be considered when examining whether a motorist exercised the appropriate care towards a child.

Characteristics of children: Children tend to be curious, and to lack appreciation for danger. They are prone to impulses and may suddenly run into the road when an object of interest is present. Many courts have held that young children under these circumstances cannot be expected to protect themselves from being struck by an automobile.

Foreseeability: The liability of a motorist for an injury to a child may depend on whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have foreseen the consequences of the motorist's behavior. If the risk of injury was not apparent, the motorist will not be held liable for the injury.

Specific Duties: To fulfill the standard of care, the motorist may be required to take certain actions, such as:

  • Sounding a warning, reducing speed or stopping
  • Maintaining proper control and preparing to take evasive action

Proximate Cause: A motorist may avoid liability for injuring a child if the motorist's negligent acts were not the proximate cause of the child's injury. Proximate cause is conduct that is the direct and immediate cause of the plaintiff's injury. The sole proximate cause of the accident could be the behavior of the injured child or the negligence of the injured child's parent, or the actions of the driver of the car.

Defenses: If the injured child's behavior contributed to his or her own injury, the plaintiff's liability will be reduced in proportion to the child's fault if the state follows comparative negligence law. Comparative fault takes into account each party's responsibility for the accident and the injuries. However, young children may be incapable of comparative negligence, and older children are only required to use that degree of care that ordinarily prudent children of the same experience and intelligence would use. The motorist might be able to raise defenses under the emergency doctrine or argue that the accident was unavoidable under the circumstances.

Action by Third Person against Parent

A parent generally is not liable for a child's negligent operation of an automobile. However, a parent who negligently entrusts an automobile to a child with knowledge that the child is incompetent or reckless may be liable for injuries suffered by a third party as a result of the child's negligent or reckless driving. Also, parents may be guilty of actionable negligence for failing to supervise a child who negligently injures a third party. If a child is the agent of his or her parent, the negligence of the child may be attributed to the parent. Finally, under the family purpose doctrine, the parent may be liable for injuries that occur while the child is driving the family car for a family purpose and with the parent's consent.

Some states have enacted laws imposing liability on parents for the negligent driving of their children. The laws typically apply to parents who give or furnish a minor an automobile to be driven on a public highway. However, if the child drives without the parent's consent, the use of the car is unauthorized, and the parent may not be liable for the child's negligence. Similarly, if the parent does not have custody of the child, these laws usually do not apply.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2016 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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