Personal Injury

Parents' Responsibility for Teen Drivers' Car Accidents

When a teenage driver causes a car accident, their parents or legal guardians can be on the legal hook for injuries, vehicle damage, and other losses resulting from the crash.
Updated: Mar 8th, 2019

As most insurance claims adjusters—and some parents—will tell you, teenagers are in a special risk category all their own when it comes to driving. Most state legislatures have recognized this fact as well, and have passed civil statutes that can be used to hold parents and guardians responsible when a teen driver's negligent or reckless driving ends up causing a car accident. Read on to learn more.

Teen Drivers Are Held to the Same Standards as All Motorists

From a sixteen year-old with a newly minted license, to a lead-footed octogenarian, motorists of all ages are held to the same legal standard when it comes to obeying the rules of the road and exercising reasonable caution under shifting circumstances.

Any licensed driver who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle owes a “duty of care” to all other drivers, passengers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. If this duty is “breached' through negligent or reckless driving, and someone is injured as a result, civil liability follows, meaning the driver (usually through his or her car insurance company) will be liable for medical bills, lost income, and other losses stemming from the crash.

But that's not all parents and legal guardians need to worry about when it comes to drivers who are under 18.

Vicarious Liability” of Parents and Guardians of Teen Drivers

Most states in the U.S. have passed some kind of law that holds a parent or guardian responsible for their minor driver, under a legal concept known as "vicarious liability." Depending on the state, this responsibility arises either:

  • at the point when the teen driver is licensed, through something akin to a “co-signing” requirement where the parent or guardian agrees to be held financially responsible if their teen driver causes a car accident
  • at the point when the teen causes a car accident, or
  • both at the time of licensing and at the time of a car accident.

For example, in California, a parent or legal guardian must sign the driver’s license application of any minor (under 18) in their care, and parents or guardians are essentially jointly liable if the minor causes a car accident. Also in California, a parent can be held civilly liable for all foreseeable damages if they give express or implied permission for a minor to drive their vehicle (whether the minor is licensed or not) and the minor causes a crash.

It's important to note that if the parent or guardian does not have contact with or custody of the teen driver at the time of the accident—meaning the parent or guardian is not in a position to supervise or control the teen's driving—then these “parental responsibility” laws usually can't be used to hold the parent or guardian liable for any car accident caused by the teen.

Learn more about car accident liability when you loan your car to someone else.

No Joy In Joyriding

What if your teen driver takes your car without permission and causes a car accident? The parents of a first-time joyrider will likely benefit from the monetary limits on recovery that can be found in most parental liability statutes, while parents who leave their car keys unattended in the presence of repeat joyriders might be on the hook for much more, since it could be said that these parents were on notice of the need to prevent their child from having access to the family car. And that can lead to the argument that the parents themselves were negligent. (More about negligence and liability for personal injury.)

Depending on your car insurance policy, your joyriding teen might not be covered under your insurance, especially if they're not listed on the policy and you tell the insurance company that the teen didn't have your permission to drive the car. That's usually true regardless of whether the teen was licensed or not. Your car insurance will almost certainly not apply if your teen driver's actions amount to criminal conduct. What's more, some insurance policies may provide that joyriding accidents will lead to cancellation or nonrenewal of coverage. Learn more about car insurance and car accident claims.

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