Children tend to be reckless, overestimate their abilities, and think themselves immortal. In the state of California’s infinite wisdom, they decided that when children hit their peak level of overconfidence is when it is best to make it legal for them to drive a car. As a result, in California you can get your license to drive a vehicle once you are 16 years old. While most people survive their teenage driving experiences without much trauma, many do not sometimes terrible things can occur with a 16-year-old behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, because of the nature of driving, when a teenage driver (or any other driver) makes a mistake that results in trauma, there is likely to be an innocent bystander just as affected. What is that person to do if the teenager has the minimum $15,000 policy but the injured party has enormous medical bills stacking up?
The answer in many circumstances is to sue the parents for negligent entrustment. While California deems it legal for a 16-year-old to drive a vehicle, that does not mean that the parent must let said teenager drive. In fact, if the parent allows the child to drive, they can be held liable for the child’s actions in some situations.
If you can show:
- The driver of the other vehicle was negligent;
- That the defendant owned the vehicle operated by the other driver;
- That the defendant knew, or should have known that the other driver was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle;
- The defendant permitted the other driver to driver the vehicle; and
- The other driver’s incompetence or unfitness to drive was a substantial factor in causing harm to you
Then you can recover against the owner of the vehicle for the damage caused by the driver of the vehicle (Flores v. Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co. (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 1055.). While this is a generally applicable principal, it often comes up in parent-child relationships. The first prong is the basic negligence analysis, which has been previously discussed. The rest of the elements are unique to this cause of action.
To help explain the remaining four elements, I will use an example of a 16-year-old getting into an accident on his way to a school dance. In that case, it is likely the child’s parent actually owned the vehicle and allowed their child to drive the car (otherwise, how would the child have access to it?). The tricky part will be proving elements 3 and 5.
Again, California licenses drivers starting at the age of 16, essentially certifying that the driver has the basic competency to safely operate a motor vehicle. However, that certification does not absolve the parent of responsibility of allowing their child drive their vehicle. Put into another context, if someone owned a gun and gave it to their friend who was belligerently drunk who then mishandled the weapon and accidentally discharged it resulting in an injury to an innocent bystander, who should face the legal ramifications—morally speaking? Well of course you would want the person who fired the gun face some consequences, but you would also want the person that gave them the gun in the first place, because they should have known not to give a firearm to someone so ill-equipped to handle one at that moment. Same thing with a car.
So, if the parent knew that their child irresponsibly accelerated the car every time they saw a yellow light, and the accident occurred because the child accelerated into a yellow light that turned red before entering the intersection, then the parent would likely be held responsible. But, if the parent knew that the child irresponsibly accelerated the car every time they saw a yellow light, but the accident occurred from the child accidentally changing lanes into another vehicle that was in their blind spot, well, the accident wasn’t caused by the known fault, and therefore the fifth element would not be satisfied.
This area of the law can be tricky, and not every accident featuring a teenager or someone driving someone else’s car is ripe for this cause of action, but if those scenarios do occur, you should at least consider the possibility.