Of all the things parents worry about when their kids take out the family car, civil liability is pretty far down the list. We just want our kids to come home safe.
But if your child gets into an accident with the family car, who's responsible for the damage or injuries? And does it matter if they were out joyriding or driving with your permission? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's an entire legal concept dedicated to just this scenario.
The Family Car Doctrine
Every state has laws that cover parental liability for the acts of their children. And about half of the states employ the family car doctrine, which makes the owner of an automobile liable for any damage incurred by a family member using the car.
In most cases, this means that parents can be liable for a kid's wreck. This can be true so long as the child is a legal dependant, even if he or she is over 18. If the car is owned by the head of the household and provided for the family's use, the owner is normally on the hook for damage if he or she knew of and consented to the child's use of the car.
However, if a child sneaks out with the family car unbeknownst to his or her parents, the parents might claim they did not consent and therefore should not be liable for any damage.
Vicarious Liability and Negligent Entrustment
Even in states that don't use the family car doctrine, there are other legal precepts that could hold parents responsible for their children's accidents. Vicarious liability can mean a person who didn't cause an injury could be legally liable for damages if they have a special relationship to the person who did.
This is especially true if a parent knows, or should have known, that their child was a bad driver. This is known as negligent entrustment, and can certainly apply when parents are allowing teenagers to drive.
Our children are going to drive and hopefully they'll be safe. But if they do get into an accident with the family car, you may want to consult with an experienced injury attorney.