Parental Liability When a Child Gets in an Accident Driving Your Car
Obtaining a driver’s license is a major rite of passage for America’s youth. In most states, and with consent of a parent, teens between the ages of 16 and 18 are permitted to apply for a driver’s license. States typically require the teen driver to first undergo a training period with a “learner’s permit”; however regulations vary by state and are typically tied to exact age or evidence of having completed a driver’s education course.
Sadly, parents often forget to explore the potential liability issues for allowing their child to either drive their car or, in extreme cases, drive any car at all. A typical scenario involves a teen getting into a fender bender and causing the family’s auto insurance rates to increase, over and above the amount it already rose due to having a teen driver. But, what about the more extreme examples of teen driving incidents? What if your child drives your car while under the influence? Are parents criminally or civilly liable when their teen goes out and hurts someone? The short answer is, yes.
Parental liability for teen driving is something that all parents should explore prior to signing for a license for their teen or allowing the teen to use the family car. The liability arises on a state law level, with different standards applied by different jurisdictions. Typically, however, three major areas of parental liability can attach as the result of a teen driving accident. In some cases, one or more theories of liability can attach to a single incident, increasing the total amount of financial exposure.
Parental liability for signing for a teen’s driver’s license
Parents who sign for a child’s license will be liable for motor vehicle injuries caused by that child until either the child’s eighteenth birthday or the day the parent withdraws support for the license. In California, signing for a driver’s license attaches strict liability, meaning that there is very little that a parent can do to avoid being held responsible for the acts of the minor. The liability, however, is often capped at various dollar amounts.
Liability for letting someone borrow your car
Another major type of parental liability would attach regardless of the driver’s age or familial relationship. Most states impose liability on the owner of a vehicle that has been involved in an automobile accident, if the owner knew or should have known that the driver presented a dangerous risk to others. Parents typically find themselves subject to this “negligent entrustment” liability when their teen has a history of problems with drugs or alcohol, prior DUI’s or other significant risk factors. All owners, however, could find themselves at the wrong end of a negligent entrustment suit for letting even an adult friend or relative borrow the car, if they do so despite evidence of prior dangerous behavior. For instance, if you know your 38-year old brother has two prior DUI incidents on his record, but you lend him your car anyway, you could be sued for negligent entrustment if he goes out and hurts someone with your car as a result of drinking.
Liability for negligent parenting
The final type of parental liability for teen accidents arises from the concept of negligent parenting. Although this liability can attach in any personal injury situation, such as assault, bullying or rape, parents typically encounter negligent parenting charges as a result of teen DUI or reckless driving incidents. As with negligent entrustment liability, most states require a plaintiff to show that the parent knew or should have known that the child needed to be supervised during the given activity. A teen’s history of bad behavior or drug or alcohol abuse will typically aid the plaintiff in proving that the parent was negligent in supervising his or her child.
Examples of Parental Liability for a children’s DUI
At 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon in April 2008, Chynna Stone, a sophomore at SMU, was sitting on her couch when 24-yr old Brian Adams drove through her living room in his parents’ GMC Yukon. Stone was pinned to the back wall and buried under three feet of rubble. The impact also caused Stone’s water heater and various pipes to burst, flooding the first floor of the apartment and causing water damage to any items not already destroyed by the crash. It took rescue crews at least forty minutes to free Stone from the pile of debris; she was later taken to Baylor hospital.
Stone and her parents filed a lawsuit in March 2010 against not only the driver, but also his parents. Adams’ parents are being sued civilly in Texas under the theory of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle, as they knew or should have known that Adams was incompetent, reckless or unfit to operate a motor vehicle when they allowed him to drive it. In addition to standard negligence causes of action, the Stones are also suing the parents for gross negligence – a conscious indifference to the rights, safety and welfare of the general public. Gross negligence damages are typically not covered by liability insurance and may even be non-dischargeable in a bankruptcy filing.
In the suit, Stone alleges that Adams’s parents let him use their car, even though they knew that he had serious issues with alcohol and drug abuse. In support of their claims, the Stones allege that Adams had previously been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia and had a prior DWI charge. The suit also alleges that the parents unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Brian to go to drug rehab and, when he refused, continued to allow him to drive their vehicle anyway.
There is evidence that, at the scene, Adams had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and smelled of alcohol. He admitted to police that he had been drinking, and failed a series of field sobriety tests. It was determined that his blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time of the crash was 0.16, double the legal limit. Toxicology tests also showed that Adams was under the influence of marijuana and cocaine at the time.
Adams was later charged with aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury (Texas Penal Code section 22.02(A)(1)); he pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years probation.
Prior to the accident, Stone suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The suit alleges that this condition has gotten worse as a result of the accident and her attorneys claim that she will endure physical pain and mental anguish in the future, as well as loss of earning capacity, physical impairment, and disfigurement. Her parents are suing on the basis of loss of services and earnings of their dependent child.
Criminal liability for a child’s DWI in New York
A more recent New York case is an example of how negligent parenting can lead to criminal charges. In September 2009, 17-year-old Lars Haas was driving drunk when he ran a red light and hit a truck driven by 72-year-old Robert Meehan. Meehan was ejected from the truck and died from his injuries six weeks later.
An investigation revealed that Haas’s mother, Susan, had furnished the alcohol that resulted in his intoxicated state. Haas was also driving his mother’s 2008 Pontiac Vibe at the time of the collision; Susan was not in the car. Several cans of beer were found in the car after the accident, and chemical tests revealed that Haas’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit for New York. He also had marijuana in his system.
The son has been charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and DWI. Not surprisingly, the DA has also charged Susan Haas with serving alcohol to minors (a misdemeanor). A civil suit is likely on the horizon.
Millie Cavanaugh, Esq., is a former insurance defense attorney currently practicing immigration law. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.