Can You Be Liable For An Auto Accident Caused By Your Child?

Posted on: 11 February 2015

When your teenager first gets his or her driver's license and begins making trips alone, you may be worried about an accident. Your primary concern is your teen's safety -- financial and legal considerations are far from the priority when it comes to your teen's well-being. However, even if your teen is unharmed in an accident, you may find yourself legally responsible for any medical bills or other obligations incurred. Read on to learn more about this area of law and how you can legally protect yourself (and your teen) in case of a car crash.

When will you be legally responsible for an accident involving your teen?

There are three specific situations in which you might be assessed liability for injuries or property damage caused by your teen in a car crash. If these bills are not covered by your auto insurance (or an umbrella policy) you could find yourself in small claims court or even civil court, defending yourself against financial responsibility for your teen's accident.

  • Negligent entrustment

Generally you'd avoid letting anyone use your vehicle if their driving skills gave some cause for concern. But if your teen needs a driver's license to get to work or school, and you don't have other transportation options, you may have no choice but to allow your teen to drive your vehicle -- even if he or she may cut some safety corners. Unfortunately, granting permission for someone to use a vehicle covered by your auto insurance when you're aware they are an irresponsible or distracted driver can make you responsible for any results of this driving. In some states, parents who were aware their teens occasionally engaged in texting while driving were held financially responsible for injuries resulting from an accident caused by these teens.

  • The "family purpose" rule

Certain states and auto insurance policies have adopted the "family purpose" doctrine. When this doctrine is in place, any vehicle that has been purchased for use by the entire family, including your teen, is viewed to be fair game for usage -- regardless of whether you've granted permission. With this assumed usage comes liability. This means that in family doctrine states, you can be liable for injuries or property damage caused by your teen, even if you've grounded your teen and/or taken away the car keys.

  • State laws governing driver's license applications

Even if your state doesn't subscribe to the family purpose doctrine, and your child is a generally careful driver, you could find yourself liable for an auto accident if you signed any documentation at the time your child got his or her driver's license. Certain states, including California and Delaware, require a parent or sponsor to sign a teen's driver's license application -- this can render the parent or sponsor liable for any damage caused by the teen's negligent or reckless driving.

How can you limit your liability?

There are a couple of ways you can avoid paying out of pocket for your teen's accident.

First, ensure that your teen has taken a safe driving course and engages in good habits. If you can show that your child does exercise responsible habits (such as not texting while driving and always wearing a seat belt) you should be able to fight back against any allegations of negligence or recklessness.

Next, investigate the purchase of an umbrella policy that can provide supplemental protection on top of your auto insurance limits. This will ensure that you are not personally responsible for any monetary damages incurred.

Finally, if your child is involved in an accident, consult a car crash attorney who is experienced in auto accident defense. This area of law can be complex, and you shouldn't attempt to navigate it without expert assistance.