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It might be the last thing you're thinking about if you hear your child has been in a car accident. But it might be the first thing you think about once you hear they're okay. Handing over the car keys to your children can be an anxiety-inducing moment, and if they get into the accident you're fearing so much, you may also be worrying about how much money you'll be on the hook for.
Whether you're liable for a car accident caused by your child can depend on a variety of factors.
As a general rule, the car owner is liable for any accident caused by that car, regardless of the driver. California's traffic code, for example, states: "Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle ... by any person using ... the same with the permission of the owner."
Additionally, the "family car doctrine" holds the owner of a family car legally responsible for any damage caused by a family member when driving. Also referred to more broadly as negligent entrustment, if a parent knew of and consented to a child's use of the family car, they are liable for any accidents the child causes. So if your child causes an accident in your car, you're likely on the hook.
Things can get legally murky if your child causes an accident in someone else's (like their friend's parents') car. While that car owner may be liable if they gave your child the keys, they could also argue the child's negligence superseded their own, and therefore the child's parents -- you -- should be on the hook for any damages.
Hopefully, you've got insurance for all of your vehicles, and listed your children as drivers on the policy. If so, your coverage should take care of any property damage or personal injuries resulting from an accident. However, if you thought you might save a few bucks on your annual premium by not listing a minor child on your auto insurance policy, be warned -- the family car doctrine can still hold you liable for their accident, and if your insurance declines to cover the damage, it's coming out of your pocket.
If your child got into a car accident and you have questions about liability or your insurance company refuses to cover damage, contact an experienced car accident attorney for help.