Are Parents Liable for Car Accidents Caused by Teenagers?

Because 16- and 17-year-old drivers are still considered minors, some different considerations arise when a crash or collision occurs.  However, the injury victim still has legal recourse.  If you or one of your loved ones was hurt in an accident caused by a teen driver, you should speak to an experienced Philadelphia car accident lawyer about the possible options for seeking compensation for your medical bills and other losses.

Distracted Driving and Text Messaging Are Major Crash Causes Among Teen Drivers

Most teens are responsible drivers, but, just like adults, there will always be a few individuals who ignore traffic laws or make careless mistakes.  Inexperience, intoxication, and driver distraction are just a few examples of the many factors that can cause preventable car accidents or truck accidents in Pennsylvania.

Text messaging while driving — which is illegal in Pennsylvania — is an especially common problem among teen drivers and young adults.  According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data from 2013, one in 10 teen drivers (aged 15 to 19) were distracted at the time of a fatal crash.  330 people — 244 of whom were teenagers (about 74%) — were killed in distraction-related crashes the same year.  That’s nearly one death every day of 2013 that arguably could have been prevented with improved driver safety education.

While far less common, accidents can also be caused by defects present in the vehicle itself.  Flawed and defective products like faulty brake systems, ignition switches, airbags, or tires can all create extremely hazardous driving conditions for even the most defensive and cautious of motorists.  Automotive manufacturers have a duty to ensure their products are reasonably safe for use by consumers, or are otherwise labeled appropriately. This is known as product liability.

car accident injury

As auto manufacturers are responsible for creating safe products, drivers also have a safety responsibility: they must obey traffic laws and take reasonable precautions to avoid foreseeable accidents.  The failure to do so is called negligence, or, if the driver intentionally disregarded an obvious risk, recklessness – and a Philadelphia car accident lawyer knows this well.

When a driver is negligent or reckless and consequently causes an otherwise avoidable accident — for instance, rear-ending another vehicle because he or she is texting instead of paying attention to the road — the injury victim, whether driver or passenger, has a right to pursue compensation for the resulting medical bills, loss of income, and other expenses.  If the injuries meet certain severity thresholds, the victim may also be able to recover compensation for pain and suffering after an accident.

However, because teen drivers aren’t considered adults for legal purposes, accident liability is impacted.

Parental Responsibility: Vicarious Liability for Car Accidents Caused by Minors

“Vicarious liability” is just what it sounds like: liability — in other words, fault and responsibility for an accident — that extends beyond the person who caused the crash to an additional party, such as the driver’s parent or the vehicle’s owner.  Vicarious liability arises in situations where a third party knew, or had reason to know, that its actions (or failures to act) enabled another party to negligently or recklessly inflict preventable injury.  Vicarious liability can arise in many different situations involving personal injury, not just vehicular accidents.  It can also involve many different types of relationships, not just the parent-child relationship.

When vicarious liability specifically involves parental liability, one should look to the relevant Pennsylvania statute, 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5502, which provides the following:

“Any parent whose child is found liable or is adjudged guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction of a tortious act shall be liable to the person who suffers the injury to the extent set forth in this chapter.”

In other words, this statute is saying that when a parent’s son or daughter is deemed liable for a civil wrong (“tortious act”), that parent will be held personally liable to the injury victim (up to $1,000 per injured person or $2,500 per accident, as provided by 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5505).  

Moreover, 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1574 states “no person shall authorize or permit a motor vehicle owned by him or under his control to be driven… by any person who is not… licensed for the type or class of vehicle to be driven,” meaning parents are prohibited from — and further, assume liability for — allowing unlicensed teens to drive their vehicle, as a Philadelphia car accident lawyer can explain.

However, a parent isn’t always necessarily liable for an accident solely because they are the vehicle’s owner, an idea described as the “family use doctrine.”  As the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted in Breslin v. Ridarelli (1982), “The family use doctrine is not a part of the law in Pennsylvania…  To establish liability against an absent owner, it must be shown not only that the driver was the owner’s servant but also that such servant was at the time engaged in the master’s business so as to be subject to the master’s control or right of control” (where “servant” refers to the child and “master” refers to the parent).

wrecking a rental car

Rather than filing a lawsuit against the teen driver’s parents, most crash victims will initially make an insurance claim.  Note that, because Pennsylvania is a choice “no-fault” state, accident victims are generally compensated through their own insurers, called a “first-party” claim, unless they have sustained very serious injuries.

Contact an Experienced Philadelphia Car Accident Lawyer Brent Wieand Today

If you were hit by a teen driver in Philadelphia or the surrounding area, you may be entitled to compensation.  Call drunk driving accident lawyer Brent Wieand at (888) 789-3161 to set up a free and absolutely confidential legal consultation.  You’ll never be charged any legal fees unless Brent makes a recovery for you.

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes.  It is not legal advice and should not be used as legal advice.***

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