Are Parents Liable for Car Accidents Caused by Their Children?
Parental Liability in Car Accidents Caused by Minors
As North Carolina car accident lawyers, we often get the question, “Are parents liable for car accidents caused by their children?”
It’s a very important question as the consequences of an auto accident can be severe, particularly when accidents result in injury. In this blog post, we’ll do our best to answer your questions about parental liability in car accidents involving minors.
Are Parents Liable if Their Children Cause a Car Accident in North Carolina?
Parents, as well as teen drivers, have enough to worry about when it comes to driving under the age of 18 so it is not welcome news to find out that in North Carolina, in some situations, parents could be liable for car accidents caused by underage drivers.
If you are a parent or guardian of a licensed driver who is a minor, under the Family Purpose Doctrine, you could be liable for injuries and other losses arising from a car accident caused by the minor. Or if your child is in pursuit of a job for you, then there may be liability under the doctrines of agency. In most situations, this results in the insurance carrier paying for the damages.
If your teen was the one at fault in an accident, then the accident victims will likely pursue compensation from you or your insurance company under a theory of vicarious liability, which holds the parents responsible for damages caused by their children.
The Family Purpose Doctrine in North Carolina
In North Carolina, a parent may be held liable for a child’s car accident under the Family Purpose Doctrine. Under the Family Purpose Doctrine, a parent could be liable any time their child causes an accident if the teen is on family business or running an errand for the family.
“Agency” in Car Accident Cases Involving Minors
The Family Purpose Doctrine is an extension of the theory of agency. To recover damages under the Family Purpose Doctrine, North Carolina courts have held that the injured party must establish 4 different elements:
- The defendant (third party you are trying to find liable) had control over the vehicle in the accident. Proving that a third party owns the vehicle does not prove that the person has “control” over the vehicle. The main test is to make sure the person driving the vehicle has the right to control the vehicle. These factors include paying the monthly car payment, paying for repairs, and keeping the keys and having the ability to drive the vehicle.
- The driver was a member of the family of the owner or person with control of the vehicle and living in the household. You must be able to prove that the driver of the car was a member of the household (the driver lives with the person in control of the vehicle). The driver does not have to be related to the owner of the vehicle but must live in the household.
- The vehicle was owned, provided and maintained for the use, pleasure and convenience of the family. You must prove that the vehicle was being used as a “family” vehicle. This would include things such as grocery shopping, family outings or trips, and taking family members to different activities.
- The vehicle was being used with implied or express consent of the owner or person in control at the time of the accident. For the Family Purpose Doctrine to apply, the injured party needs to prove that the vehicle was being used with the expressed or implied consent of the person in “control” of the vehicle. This means that the person in “control” of the vehicle had knowledge or approved of the at-fault driver’s use of the vehicle.
Under the Family Purpose Doctrine, it is not solely enough to show that a person owned the vehicle to hold that person liable. The person must have control over the vehicle. To prove whether a person has control over a vehicle, courts have held “relevant control” factors. These factors include a parent’s payment or repayment of insurance premiums, operating and repair expenses of the vehicle, possession of the vehicle’s keys, and driving the vehicle.
When Could a Parent Be Liable for an Accident Caused by His or Her Children?
The most common implementation of the Family Purpose Doctrine is when a teenager is driving a parent’s vehicle, conducting family business, or running an errand for the family when the accident occurs. However, just because a minor is driving a vehicle in which his/her parents own does not automatically mean the Family Purpose Doctrine applies.
The Family Purpose Doctrine can also apply to family members other than minor children. A person could be liable under the doctrine for damage caused by the negligence of a spouse, sibling, nephew, niece, grandchild, or other family member who is living in the household.
In order to establish the Family Purpose Doctrine and hold a parent or “controlling” party liable, the injured party has the burden of proof.
The plaintiff must establish all four elements of the doctrine (see above) in order to have the liability transferred to the person in “control” of the vehicle at the time of the accident. Although the Family Purpose Doctrine does allow you to hold a third party liable after an accident, the liability is limited and carefully handled in each case.
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