Teen Drivers and Car Accident Liability

May 18, 2018

Since most teen drivers lack significant experience on the road, it’s no surprise that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drivers aged 16 to 19 are at the highest risk for motor vehicle accidents. The CDC also reports that in 2013, young people from 15-19 represented only 7% of the US population, but accounted for 11% of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries, which amounted to over $10 billion.

Apart from the obvious safety concerns, many parents and guardians should be aware that if their teenager causes an accident, they could be legally liable for damages. There are several different legal theories under which an accident victim could sue a teen driver’s parents or guardians, and being aware of the possible consequences of a young driver causing an accident is crucial to encouraging safe driving and preparing for potential legal action.

Teen Drivers are Held to the Same Standard as Adults

As soon as teen drivers are granted a license or driving permit, they are bound by the same rules of the road as every other driver. This means they are held to the same standard of care while driving, and don’t receive any special treatment just because they are inexperienced. If a teen driver breaches this required duty of care, by disobeying traffic laws or driving recklessly, and someone is injured, the teen driver may face civil liability.

Thankfully, insurance will usually take care of the costs of an accident, and cover damage to both persons and property. However, having a teen driver on an insurance policy is fairly expensive in the first place, and if those young drivers get in an accident, expect premiums to skyrocket in response.

However, if the teen driver was committing a criminal (not traffic) violation, insurance may refuse to pay out any claims, as many car insurance policies exclude coverage from claims resulting from a criminal act of the insured. Lastly, parents of teens who are 18 and older and drive cars legally owned by the teens generally won’t be liable for any accidents involving that teen.

Negligent Entrustment

This legal theory states that if a parent knew or should have know that their teen driver was a danger to others on the road, and allowed them to drive or provided the means to do so, the parents can be liable when their teen causes a car accident. For example, if a teen driver’s parents know that their teenager has been in several accidents in the past year, and has received several tickets for speeding, and still allow him to drive, they could be liable for any damages he causes in an accident. Allowing a teen driver with this driving history to drive in difficult circumstances (long road trip, late at night, during bad weather) could allow an accident victim to seek compensation from the drivers parents via a negligent entrustment theory.

Some states, require parents of teen drivers applying for driving privilege to assume their minor child’s liability if their teen is responsible for a motor vehicle accident. The parents are often required to agree to this assumption of responsibility when they sign their child’s drivers permit or license application.

Vicarious Liability

Another legal theory, vicarious liability, states the parent (or ‘principal’) would be liable for the wrongdoing of their child (or ‘agent’) if the child is acting under the direction and authority of their parent. While this legal theory is often applied in a context where a victim seeks to sue an employer for the actions of their employee, the theory can also be applied in the teen driver context.

Some states term this kind of liability “family use” or “family purpose” doctrine, which means that as long as the parent has control over the teen driver’s ability to use the vehicle. This could include allowing the teen to use the car to run errands, drive siblings to school, or while pursuing any other family “purpose” or “use”, which is generally a very broad category.




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