Ask an Accident Attorney: Are Parents Liable When Their Teenager Causes a Car Accident?
By Chad Rankin, Pennsylvania Car Accident Attorney
What is your liability when a teenager causes a car accident? Are we parents responsible for the mistakes of our teenagers when driving on the roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania? Many of us have, or will soon have, driving teenagers. We all realize how unprepared most teenage drivers are to handle the responsibility of safely operating a vehicle. We will talk to them about distracted driving and give them tips about how to drive. However, like many other skills in life, they typically do not want to learn them from their parents.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous people on the road are drivers between the ages of 16-20. They are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash and account for a high percentage of car accidents overall. The following link provides a thorough look at the car accident statistics for Pennsylvania; including those for teenagers.
In 2016, 2,433 teens in the United States ages 16–19 were killed and 292,742 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.1 That means that six teens ages 16–19 died every day due to motor vehicle crashes and hundreds more were injured.
In 2016, young people ages 15-19 represented 6.5% of the U.S. population. However, they accounted for an estimated $13.6 billion (8.4%) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.1,2 (CDC https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/teen_drivers/teendrivers_factsheet.html)
Learn more Pennsylvania teen driver accident statistics by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
So are parents responsible for the mistakes of our teenage drivers? As with many legal questions, the answer is not black or white. Frankly, that is why you hire an experienced car accident attorney when you have a legal issue. I had a case where we brought a lawsuit against the teenage driver and one of her parents who owned the car. We pursued a legal theory known as “negligent entrustment” against the parent. Simply put, negligent entrustment is when someone should not allow another to use a dangerous thing, but they do anyway and someone gets hurt as a result of negligent or improper use of that thing. If you know that someone is inexperienced with guns, you would not hand them a loaded gun. If someone was intoxicated, you should not hand them the keys to your car.
Our research in this particular case revealed that the child had been in a handful of accidents already; including accidents where traffic and/or criminal charges were filed against the child for distracted driving. This kid could not stay off of her phone while driving. She was a distracted driver. When the parent testified, they acknowledged knowing about the prior accidents and the prior problems their child had with distracted driving. They admitted to never punishing the child or even restricting their driving privileges. Despite this knowledge, the parent continued to let their child use the parent’s car. This case settled before I could make an example of this parent; namely, because the money offered was too much to walk away from for my clients. However, this parent was going to be in serious trouble had the case not settled.
So what can we do as parents to avoid becoming personally responsible if our teenager causes a car accident? If you have reason to know that your child is likely going to cause an accident, you should not entrust them with your vehicle. Does that mean that you should not allow your child to drive your vehicle at all because the statistics show that teenagers are more likely to cause an accident? No, that would be unreasonable. Your actions will be judged by what a reasonable person would do under those circumstances. If you took reasonable steps to ensure that your child safely operates your vehicle, then you will be fine. You will not be personally responsible for the actions of your child if they cause an accident. Your automobile insurance policy should pay the claim and, if necessary, provide a defense for your child. If your child is in an accident, it is important they know what to do. You can learn more in our article Things You Should Do After a Car Accident or on our Car Accidents webpage.
If you have any questions about this article or need legal help after a car accident, call Lancaster County attorney Chad Rankin at RG Injury Law for a free consultation, (717) 656-5000. Chad Rankin is a Lancaster car accident lawyer who has been practicing personal injury for nearly 20 years. He is a Partner at Rankin & Gregory in Lancaster County, PA. Rankin & Gregory, LLC 2173 Embassy Drive Lancaster, PA 17603.