Vehicle Owners’ Liability for Unlicensed Drivers and Minors’ Accidents
Wednesday’s blog examined the issue of negligent entrustment, a cause of action which generally arises when the owner of a motor vehicle negligently grants use of the vehicle to an unlicensed or incompetent person, resulting in damages.
However, negligent entrustment is not the only source of liability vehicle owners may face when loaning automobiles.
PARENTS ARE OFTEN STATUTORILY LIABLE FOR MINORS’ ACCIDENTS
In many states (including California), parents (or legal guardians) are liable for injuries and damage their minor children cause while operating an automobile.
Under the California vehicle code, parental liability attaches where:
— the child is driving with the parent’s permission (explicit or implicit), or
— the parent signs and verifies the child’s driver’s license application.
(Note: a parental signature is generally required in order for a person under the age of 18 to obtain a driver’s permit or license.)
The California vehicle code does limit parental liability to $5,000 in property damage and/or $15,000 for injury or death to a single person, or $30,000 for injury or death of multiple people (in a single accident). However, these are significant sums, and parents should be aware of the potential liability before permitting children to take control of a motor vehicle. No matter how badly a child wants to drive, parents should exercise caution and evaluate whether a minor is prepared and responsible enough to operate a vehicle before allowing their minor children to get behind the wheel.
IT IS ILLEGAL TO LOAN A MOTOR VEHICLE TO AN UNLICENSED DRIVER
The California vehicle code makes it illegal for the owner of an automobile to knowingly allow an unlicensed driver to operate the vehicle. Violations of this law create a prima facie case for negligent entrustment, which means that if a jury determines that the vehicle owner was negligent (after reviewing the specific facts and circumstances of the case) liability will ensue.
Liability under this part of the vehicle code does require that the vehicle’s owner knew–or should have known–that the person to whom (s)he granted permission to drive the vehicle was unlicensed. However, vehicle owners may still be liable under general principles of negligent entrustment if the facts and circumstances reveal that permitting the person to operate the vehicle was negligent (even without knowledge of the driver’s unlicensed status).
The take-away lesson: be exceedingly careful about deciding to allow other people–even your children–to operate your automobile. Every time you loan your car to someone else, you risk liability if that person has an accident or causes injuries or damage.