Vicarious Liability for Parents of Teen Drivers

Vicarious Liability is a legal doctrine that, in the past, was used to hold parents financially responsible for the carelessness of their children.

Vicarious Liability is a legal doctrine that, in the past, was used to hold parents financially responsible for the carelessness of their children. To put it simply, parents were considered to be in charge of their children's actions, and so parents were also responsible for any accidents their children caused. Today, the doctrine of vicarious liability doesn’t exist in the same strict sense, but there are a number of ways in which teen drivers and/or their parents can be held responsible for damages stemming from  a car accident.

If you are involved in an accident with a teen driver, you may be able to bring an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit against:

  • the minor directly, for his or her careless driving
  • the minor’s parent(s), if they knew or should have known the child had a propensity for the behavior that caused the accident
  • the minor’s parent(s), if your state has a law called the “Family Purpose Doctrine”

Let’s take a closer look at each of these options.

Claims Against the Teen Driver

In the past, vicarious liability might have imposed responsibility on a teen's parents, but now teen drivers can be held financially responsible for their own behavior. Should a teen driver’s carelessness cause your accident, it’s appropriate to seek compensation for your injuries from the teen driver directly (or his or her insurer). Your insurance claim or lawsuit would follow a legal theory called “negligence.” Under this theory, a motorist who fails to drive in a reasonably safe manner can be held at fault for any injuries stemming from a car accident. Teen drivers get no special treatment based on their age.

Failure to drive in a reasonably safe manner can include anything from texting while driving, to speeding or running a red light.  

Claims Against a Minor Driver’s Parents

Aside from pursuing a teen driver directly after a car accident, you may also be able to bring a claim against the parents of a minor driver. This isn’t a cut and dried proposition. It’s usually only an option in one of two scenarios: 1) when a parent knows that his or her child is likely to cause an accident, and does not stop it from happening, or 2) when a parent lends his or her car to a negligent family member (this second scenario will only trigger a parent’s liability in certain states).

If the Parents Knew about the Teen's Propensities

If a parent knew or should have known that a minor driver was likely to cause the sort of car accident that occurred, the parent may be held financially responsible for any damages caused by the accident. Examples of this would be if parents knew or should have known that their child had a habit of:  

  • reckless driving or hit and run
  • speeding
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • running red lights
  • using cell phones and other devices while driving

It’s not enough for the parent merely to know of their teen driver’s bad habits. The habit must have caused the accident. So, let's take Sue as an example. Sue is the mother of Jane and she knows that Jane always runs the stop sign in front of their home. Sue not only allows Jane to keep driving, but takes no action at all. One day, Jane once again fails to stop at the stop sign, and this time she hits another car. Because Sue herself was careless in not taking action against Jane's obvious unsafe driving habits, Sue can be held responsible for the injuries and vehicle damage incurred by the driver whose car was hit by Jane.  

Family Purpose Doctrine

Many states follow “Family Purpose Doctrine” laws. Under the Family Purpose Doctrine, the owner of a vehicle is financially responsible for the careless operation of the vehicle when it is being driven by other family members. This doctrine applies so long as the family member consensually used the vehicle for any family purpose. Typically, any family purpose will do, including driving for pleasure.

For example, Sue lends her car to her daughter Jane. Jane goes to the store to buy some milk for the household. On her way, Jane isn't paying attention and carelessly runs a red light, hitting another car. In a state that follows the Family Purpose Doctrine, the driver of the car can bring a vicarious liability claim against Sue even though she wasn't driving.

Getting Legal Help

Car accidents involving teen drivers may become convoluted. It's challenging to figure out whether parents can be held liable, and what laws apply where you live (including whether your state follows the Family Purpose Doctrine).  If you’ve been involved in a car accident with a teen driver, it may be wise to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to make sure that your legal rights are protected.

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