Parents of teen drivers probably have enough to worry about when it comes to handing over the car keys, so it won't be welcome news to hear that in some situations, parents can be held liable for a car accident caused by a child who is under 18.
- 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
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 misconduct). 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 taken on by (or "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 losses resulting from the car accident, along with the child. Learn more about what it means 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, suing a parent for negligent entrustment or negligent oversight requires proof that the parent was in fact negligent in order to recover any damages from the parent. (Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.)
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. Learn more about liability for an accident when you loan your car to someone else.
Negligent oversight is based more on a parent's failure to properly supervise a child. If the parent knows or reasonably should know that the child has a propensity for taking the keys and going off in the car without permission, the parent would likely have a heightened duty of care when it comes to securing the keys and keeping 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.
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.