While many teenagers are excited to get behind the wheel, the risk of accidents caused by these novice drivers looms large. Their inexperience may make it harder for them to recognize road hazards and navigate around them. In addition, teens are more likely to be distracted than the average driver. Distractions often involve cell phones, since teens may be tempted to send texts or emails to friends while they are driving. Non-technological distractions may include eating or drinking in the car or getting absorbed in conversations with friends riding with them. Teens also may engage in dangerously aggressive behaviors, such as speeding or tailgating. Sometimes they may get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or drugs.
Modeling Safe Driving
Parents should recognize that their teens may imitate their driving style. Thus, they should drive carefully and safely when their children are riding with them.
Parents may have legal recourse if their child was riding with a teenage friend whose careless actions caused a crash. The insurance policy of a teenage driver’s parents likely will cover accidents that the teen causes if they have a driver’s license and have been added to the parents’ car insurance policy. (If the teen’s actions were criminal, an insurance policy will not provide coverage, but these situations are rare in the context of car accidents.)
Getting Compensation for a Teen Driver Accident
The same core principles apply to accidents caused by teenage drivers as to accidents caused by adult drivers. Parents suing for injuries to their child would need to show that the teenage driver acted negligently. This means that they did not act with the reasonable care that they should have used in the circumstances. For example, a reasonable driver would not text with their friends while driving down a freeway, understanding the risks that this behavior poses.
If a claim based on a teen driver accident succeeds, parents can recover damages on behalf of their child for items such as medical bills and the costs of future treatment. They also may recover damages based on less tangible forms of harm, such as pain and suffering and emotional distress. Recovering the full scope of damages arising from an accident may require gathering and presenting diverse forms of evidence. These may include a police report, photos and videos of the accident scene and the injuries, medical records and bills, and witness statements, among other items.
Sometimes two drivers collide, and each driver is at fault to some extent. In most states, a victim who was partly at fault for an accident may be able to recover damages that are proportionate to the defendant’s degree of fault. However, some of these states bar damages if a victim was at least 50 percent (or sometimes 51 percent) at fault.
Suing a Parent After a Teen Driver Accident
The parents of a teen driver may bear liability for an accident in certain situations. Laws on parental liability vary by state. California, Florida, and certain other states automatically impose liability on the parents of a teen driver when they sign the driver’s license application of the teenager. Other states may allow a victim to establish liability through theories such as negligent entrustment or vicarious liability.
Negligent entrustment means that a parent will be liable for an accident caused by their child if they should have known that their child posed an especially great risk behind the wheel, but they failed to take reasonable precautions against that risk. This might arise when parents let a child go out in their car with their friends when their license has been suspended, or when they recently have been involved in a series of accidents or committed numerous violations.
Vicarious liability often involves the use of a vehicle for a family purpose, which is defined broadly. For example, parents may be held liable under this theory when a teenager causes an accident while they are performing an errand that their parents asked them to do. These cases tend to be very fact-specific and may benefit from the analysis of an attorney.
When Does Parental Liability Matter?
If an insurance policy fully covers the losses arising from an accident, it may not matter whether parents are liable in addition to their teenager. When there is no applicable insurance, or when the policy does not fully cover the losses, establishing parental liability may make a difference.