A Norcross 17 year passenger died when his friend lost control of their car while allegedly speeding. See WSBTV coverage of the crash. Unfortunately teenage driving is all too common of an element in fatal crashes in the Atlanta area. What is unusual here is the fact that the police have charged the parents for allowing the unlicensed 16 year old to drive the car.
While most parents stay up at night as it is worrying that their children might hurt someone else, there is also the deep seated fear of the family getting sued into the poorhouse for the actions of the teenager. So the question arises; can the parents of a teenager driver be legally liable when their child causes a crash that kills someone?
From the outset, the rule is that parents are not automatically responsible for the actions of their child. If your child causes a crash and had permission to drive the car, your car insurance will protect the child with a free lawyer and up to the policy limits.
The next inquiry is whether the car is one that is regularly provided to the child for their use for the family’s convenience. This is known as the family purpose doctrine.
If the car is owned by the child, whether given or sold, the inquiry is whether the parents maintain control over the vehicle such that the law finds the child to be the agent of the parents. Boiling it down, the parents can pay for gas and insurance, but if the parent has the right to take the car away, there is control and the parents can be liable under the doctrine and under a negligent entrustment analysis.
To succeed in a negligent entrustment claim, the victim must show that the driver had demonstrated poor driving skills in the past and the parents knew of it. In the crash involving the death of Strickland, the fact the driver did not have a full license will be evidence that it was negligent (and illegal) to entrust the car to the minor.
The final issue that is relevant, is the question of insurance coverage. Most car policies contain what is known as an unlicensed driver exclusion. Under the exclusion, the driver’s insurance is reduced from whatever limits they bought to $25,000.00 unless the other driver has uninsured motorist insurance, in which case the coverage is reduced to zero. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Progressive Preferred Ins. Co., 193 Ga.App. 864, 389 S.E.2d 370 (1989) See our detailed explanation of Georgia Insurance exclusions.