Can parents be sued for a teen driver’s auto accident?
It’s an exciting time when a teenager is learning how to drive – they are counting down the days until they can get their driver’s permit, practicing driving with their learner’s permit, and then, finally, they can get behind the wheel on their own!
Now they can drive themselves to school, to sports practice, and to their friends’ houses…
But wait – if they get into a wreck, are the parents responsible? Does the parent’s auto insurance cover their children as well? Can the parents be sued directly for damages after their teen child gets into an auto accident?
Who Pays After a Teen Driver’s Auto Accident?
According to the CDC, car crashes are the second leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States. Some facts from the CDC include:
- Almost 2500 teenagers were killed in auto accidents in 2018;
- Around 285,000 teenagers were treated in emergency rooms following car crashes in 2018;
- Teenagers aged 16-19 are in the highest risk group for auto accidents, and
- The risk is even higher for male teens, teens driving with teenage passengers, and newly licensed teens.
Risk factors that make teens more likely to crash and suffer injuries include:
- Nighttime and weekend driving,
- Not using seatbelts,
- Distracted driving (phone calls, texts, emails, social media while driving),
- Speeding, and
- Alcohol use.
Teen accidents are going to happen… So, who pays after a teen driver’s auto accident? The teen? The parent? Is the accident covered by insurance?
Will a Parent’s Insurance Policy Pay for a Teen Driver’s Auto Accident?
In most cases, the parent’s insurance policy, the owner of the car’s insurance policy, or both may cover a teen driver’s auto accident unless the teenager was an unauthorized driver, in which case the insurance company may attempt to deny the claim.
In some cases, the teen driver will have their own insurance policy.
Whether an accident is covered by insurance and whose insurance policy is obligated to pay will depend on the language in the insurance policies and whether the teen was excluded as an authorized driver.
If you have been injured after an auto accident with a teen driver, your attorney at Coastal Law will look at all possible sources of recovery, including the possibility of multiple insurance policies that can be “stacked” to provide full and fair compensation for your injuries, uninsured motorist (UM) coverage, and underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage.
What if there is no insurance coverage or there is not enough insurance coverage?
Parents May be Responsible for a Teen Driver’s Auto Accident by Law
Parents are often liable for a teen driver’s auto accident by law in SC.
SC Code Section 56-1-110 makes a parent – or any other adult – who co-signs the teen’s driver’s license application “jointly and severally liable” with the teenager in any lawsuit for negligence:
Any negligence or wilful misconduct of a minor when driving a motor vehicle upon a highway must be imputed to the person who has signed the application of such minor for a beginner’s permit, instruction permit, or driver’s license, which person is jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damage caused by such negligence or wilful misconduct, except that if such minor is protected by a policy of liability insurance in the form and in the amounts as required under Chapter 9 of this title and Sections 38-77-140 through 38-77-310, then such parent or guardian or other responsible adult is not subject to the liability otherwise imposed under this section.
“Jointly and several liable” means that both the teen and the parent are liable for the accident, and a plaintiff can collect their damages from either party.
How can you avoid this liability?
If the teen has their own insurance policy that meets the minimum requirements under SC law, then the parent is not liable under this code section. But…
Even when the teen has their own insurance policy, there are other legal theories that could make the parent liable, including the family purpose doctrine and the doctrine of negligent entrustment.
What is the Family Purpose Doctrine?
Under the family purpose doctrine, when the head of a family (usually the parent) “owns, furnishes, and maintains a vehicle” for the use of the family, they are liable for a family member’s negligence while driving if that family member was authorized to use the vehicle:
“Under the family purpose doctrine, the head of a family who owns, furnishes, and maintains a vehicle for the general use and convenience of his family is liable for the negligence of a family member having general authority to operate the vehicle for such a purpose.” Thompson v. Michael, 315 S.C. 268, 272, 433 S.E.2d 853, 855 (1993). The doctrine has its genesis in the law of agency, and it will impose liability on a parent when a child is acting as his agent. Id. Thus, “one ‘who has made it his business to furnish a car for the use of his family is liable as principal or master when such business is being carried out by a family member using the vehicle for its intended purpose, the family member thereby filling the role of agent or servant.’” Campbell v. Paschal, 290 S.C. 1, 8, 347 S.E.2d 892, 897 (Ct. App. 1986) (quoting 8 A.L.R.3d 1191 at 1196 (1966)).
The family purpose doctrine doesn’t just apply to teenagers who live in the home. Although it most often applies to a teen driver, it could apply to any family member who is driving a vehicle that was furnished by the head of the household…
Another legal theory that can make a parent liable for a teen driver’s auto accident is negligent entrustment.
SC courts allow lawsuits for negligent entrustment of an automobile, making the owner of the vehicle liable when they allow someone to use their vehicle and they know that the driver is reckless or dangerous because of their youth, inexperience, drug use, or alcoholism.
In Lydia v. Horton, the SC Court of Appeals adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts’ definition of negligent entrustment as the legal standard in SC:
The Restatement (Second) of Torts з 308 (1965), reads:
It is negligence to permit a third person to use a thing or to engage in an activity which is under the control of the actor, if the actor knows or should know that such person intends or is likely to use the thing or to conduct himself in the activity in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.
According to comment b to Restatement (Second) of Torts з 390 (1965), the “rule stated in [з 390] is a special application of the rule stated in з 308.” Section 390 provides:
One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.
This means that a parent can be sued under a theory of negligent entrustment when they allow their teenaged child to drive their vehicle when they know because of the teen’s “youth, inexperience, or otherwise,” that there is an unreasonable risk of harm.
Myrtle Beach, SC Auto Accident Attorneys
If you were involved in an auto accident caused by a teen driver, your personal injury attorney at Coastal Law will investigate the crash and identify all possible sources of recovery, including insurance policies and filing suit against the teen’s parents when appropriate.
Schedule a free consultation to discuss the facts of your case by calling (843) 488-5000 or filling out our online form.