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Parent Liability in Teen Auto Accidents

Learning to drive is an important milestone in a teenager’s life. It is a step closer to complete independence from the teen’s parents and the beginning of a new set of responsibilities.

A considerable number of Americans become licensed drivers before their 18th birthday, which puts them in a precarious position: they are allowed to drive large vehicles that can potentially injure and kill them and others if they are involved in collisions

So who is liable when a teen driver causes a car accident that injures someone else?

First, understand that the liability insurance covering the car that the teen driver was using will be liable regardless of whether the vehicle was owned by the teenager or the teenager’s parents as described by Carolina Parent.

In addition in certain circumstances, the parents may also be held liable for the teenager’s negligence. In North Carolina, the family purpose doctrine governs the liability of parents in car accidents involving teenage drivers. This doctrine is an extension of the theory of agency. This may allow the tapping into additional insurance policies. In order to recover damages under the family purpose doctrine, North Carolina courts have held that the injured party must show that:

  1. the operator was a member of the family or household of the owner or person with control and was living in such person’s home;
  2. that the vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the general use, pleasure and convenience of the family; and
  3. that the vehicle was being so used with the express or implied consent of the owner or person in control at the time of the accident.

It is not merely enough to show that a person owned the vehicle to hold that person liable under the family purpose doctrine. The person must have control over the vehicle. To determine whether a person has control over the vehicle, courts have held that “relevant “control” factors … include a parent’s payment or repayment of the purchase price; payment of insurance premiums, repairs or operating expenses; possession of vehicle keys; and actually driving the vehicle.”

However, just because a minor child is driving a car to which his parent has title does not automatically make the family purpose doctrine applicable. According to North Carolina courts, the family purpose doctrine is not “a sort of antidote to juvenile delinquency or a palliative for traditional youthful recklessness.”

These are all issues to discuss with your child and your spouse. Adding a teenage driver to your family policy will raise your premium, but the cost of this additional driver is less than your child would pay for his or her own policy in most situations. The right choice for your child depends on factors like his or her spending power, your spending power, and your personal values.

Dangers of Inexperienced and Distracted Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car accidents are the leading cause of death for individuals ages 15-20. According to a 2008 study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 197 North Carolina teens were killed and 18,560 were injured in car accidents in one year.

In addition to discussing your teen’s auto insurance policy, talk to them about the dangers of cellphone use while driving. Earlier this year, a man suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a teen driver who was not only speeding, but using Snapchat while driving so she could capture her speed using the app’s speed filter, as reported in a post published by WHNT News 19.

How to Best Protect Yourself When You Have a Teen Driver

As a parent, you can protect yourself from liability for your child’s accidents by having him or her take out his or her own insurance policy.

You can also protect your whole family and others by discussing automobile safety with your son or daughter on a recurring, consistent basis. Talk about the following safety issues and stress the importance of making safe choices.

  • Drinking and driving
  • Driving while under the influence of any drug, prescription or not
  • Cellphone use while driving
  • Safe operating procedures, such as wearing a seatbelt and using the car’s turn signals and headlights while driving
  • How weather conditions can affect a driver’s visibility and the way a vehicle handles
  • Observing the rules of the road

Talking about safety behind the wheel is a great start to protecting your teen driver from causing injuries in an accident, but do not stop here. Demonstrate these safety precautions by practicing them yourself at all times. Your teen probably spends more time in the car with you than with any other individual. Use this time to demonstrate things like maintaining a safe following distance, wearing a seatbelt, choosing not to use your phone while driving, and obeying all posted traffic signage. Impress upon your child that accidents can happen, but there are ways to reduce your chance of being involved in one by being vigilant behind the wheel at all times.

What to Do If You Are Hit by a Teen Driver

Do the exact same thing you would do if you were involved in an accident with any other driver: if it is safe to do so, pull off the roadway. Check to see if any other parties involved in the crash are in need of immediate medical attention and if so, call 911 to have an ambulance sent to the scene. If not, call the police to have an officer dispatched to the scene of the accident.

The teenage driver will likely be frightened and confused. As the adult in the situation, you will have to take the lead to handle it. Do not yell at the teen driver and try to keep your frustration under control. Making the teen driver feel worse will not make the situation any better.

Once his or her parents arrive to the scene, exchange your insurance information with them or with the teen driver with their permission, depending on whether the driver has his or her own insurance or he or she is on their insurance. Then, take as many photographs of the scene as you feel are necessary to support any future personal injury claim you may file and exchange contact information with any witnesses to the accident.

After you leave the scene, seek medical attention as soon as you can for your injury. After your injury has been diagnosed and you receive treatment, seek an experienced personal injury attorney to help you with the next steps involved in your personal injury claim.

Work with a Raleigh Car Accident Attorney

If you or your child has been injured in a car accident, work with an experienced North Carolina car accident lawyer to pursue monetary compensation for your damages. Contact our team at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., to set up your initial legal consultation with a member of our firm. We proudly serve clients in Raleigh, across the Triangle, and throughout North Carolina. We can help you with your personal injury claim by representing your interests and protecting your rights.

About the Author

David E. Vtipil
David Vtipil is an attorney at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A. and concentrates his law practice on personal injury and workers' compensation. David E. Vtipil was selected by his peers for inclusion in the 21st Edition of The Best Lawyers in America in the field of Workers’ Compensation Law.

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