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When Are Parents Liable for their Children’s Car Accidents?

Motor vehicle owners in Kentucky who are also parents need to pay attention to whether or not it’s appropriate to let their children drive. Even though a parent who signs the application for a minor to obtain a driver’s license accepts liability for any damage caused by the teen, a parent who doesn’t sign the application can also be held liable for damages caused if there is negligent supervision of the teen. In addition, if an underage driver without a license gets into a car crash while driving his parent’s car, those that he hurts may have a cause of action against the parents for negligent supervision.

Negligent supervision cases are based on the idea that a parent has a duty to exercise reasonable care to make sure his or her minor child does not intentionally harm another or create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm. To provenegligent supervision in the context of a car accident, a plaintiff must show (1) the defendant has a duty, (2) breaches the duty; and (3) as a result of the breach, an actual injury occurred. More specifically, to be held responsible, a parent must know or have reason to know of his or her ability to control the minor and must know or should know that it is necessary  and possible to control the child.

Foreseeability is the issue on which a parent’s responsibility to control his or her child turns. Foreseeability usually requires that the child has committed the same or a very similar act previously. Parents are not required to be fortune-tellers about their child’s behavior. But in the case of car accidents, parents who know that their child has been drunk and driven on multiple prior occasions may be liable to anyone the child injures.

In a 2006 case, the Kentucky Court of Appeals considered whether parents had negligently supervised their child who crashed their car and injured a passenger. The case arose when a fifteen year old convinced someone to buy him beer. The person left the beer in his car. The fifteen year old had no license or permit to drive, but drove the car to his destination. He and his friends drank beer at another friend’s house and then the fifteen year old drove the friends to a cemetery for another gathering. As he was driving through the cemetery he crashed into a tree. One of his friends suffered brain damage as a result.

The friend’s parents sued the fifteen year old, his parents, and others. The claim against the parents was for negligent supervision of their son. The parents filed a motion for summary judgment claiming there were no issues of material fact as to their negligence in supervising the fifteen year old and prevailed.

The parents of the boy who suffered brain damage appealed. The appellate court reasoned that there was no evidence that the parents had actual knowledge of their son drinking and driving on the night of the accident or even before that. The plaintiffs had argued that the accident was foreseeable because the parents knew of prior occasions of drinking and prior occasions of driving a vehicle. In instances of the former, his parents punished him. The plaintiffs argued the parents’ efforts were ineffectual.

With respect to prior driving incidents, the boy’s father testified that he didn’t know his son had driven before. His mother testified she let her son practice driving in the cemetery weeks before the accident.

The appellate court found that these isolated instances of drinking and on another occasion operating a motor vehicle with his parent in the car were not sufficient to make it foreseeable that he would take a car and crash it into a tree as he did the night of the accident. The appellate court also found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the parents had the actual ability to control their son to keep him from driving and crashing the car.

Parents of teenagers who own cars must be cautious about how they respond to their child’s misbehavior in connection with the car and drinking. Although this case found in favor of the defendants, the court left open the question of whether the parents would have been liable if they had known of more occasions on which their son drove drunk.

If you or a loved one has been hurt in a car accident as a result of someone else’s negligence, there may be more than one person at fault—and it may not just be the driver’s fault. An experienced Kentucky personal injury attorney looks at all possible sources of compensation for damages and losses you’ve suffered in a car accident. It is important to talk to your own attorney before you talk to the other driver’s insurer or attorney. Contact us at 877-634-1519 or via our online form.

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