PARENTS LIABILITY FOR THEIR CHILD’S ACTS
I often get asked by parents: (1) if their child hurts someone in a car wreck, can they be held responsible; and (2) what can they do to protect themselves against individual liability? The answer to the first question is that parents can be held personally liable under Tennessee’s “family purpose doctrine” if their child causes a wreck while driving a family car and under Tennessee’s state statutes. The answer to the second question is that with proper planning, parents can reduce the likelihood that they will become the targets of a lawsuit arising out of an automobile accident caused by a child.
Almost every state has parental responsibility laws that hold parents or legal guardians responsible for property damage, personal injury, theft, shoplifting, and/or vandalism resulting from intentional or willful acts of their children. This parental responsibility may have certain conditions and limits attached to it. However, such parental responsibility statutes do not abrogate or affect common law liability parents might otherwise have for failure to prevent children with dangerous propensities from committing foreseeable acts and damages.
A few examples of parental liability are co-signing for your child’s driver’s license and liability imposed as the head of the household.
CO-SIGNING FOR DRIVER’S LICENSE
In Tennessee, there is parent/legal guardian responsibility for applicants for a driver’s license which has two separate statutory provisions imposing liability on parents/legal guardians.
T.C.A. §55-50-311 provides that there is liability for the adults for the actions of minors with learning permits.
T.C.A. §55-50-312 imposes liability for the acts of a driver under the age of eighteen, which states that any negligence or willful misconduct or violation of any motor vehicle law of this state or any municipality thereof by a minor under eighteen (18) years of age while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway or street shall be imputed to the person who has signed the application of such minor for a permit or license and shall be jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damages or fines occasioned by such negligence, willful misconduct or violation, or except as otherwise provided in sub-section (c).
Sub-section (c) states that none of this has application if the minimum limits of insurance are maintained. Thus, you should obtain insurance before letting your minor out on the street in a vehicle if you have signed for the minor’s license.
FAMILY PURPOSE DOCTRINE
The family purpose doctrine is the concept that makes the head of the household responsible if they furnish a vehicle for the use of the other persons within the household. This would apply to, most commonly, the relationship of a parent and child. If the head of the household furnishes a vehicle to another member of the family for their general use and provides the upkeep on the vehicle, then they subject themselves to responsibility. Awareness of this liability and sufficient insurance coverage is the first step.
The family purpose doctrine imposes vicarious liability on the owner of a vehicle for the negligent operation of the vehicle by a family member. The family purpose doctrine will apply in situations where: (1) a parent furnishes a car to his or her child for the purpose of providing pleasure or comfort for the child or family; (2) at the time of an accident or injury involving the vehicle, the vehicle was being operated by the child for some family purpose or for the benefit of the family; and (3) the vehicle was being operated with the parent’s permission. The fact that a child does not live with a parent does not insulate the parent from liability if the child causes an accident while operating a vehicle furnished by the parent. With respect to the requirement that a vehicle must have been used with a parent’s permission, unless a parent can show some specific reason why his or her child was not authorized to use a vehicle at the time of an accident, or that the parent had absolutely no control over how the vehicle was being used by the child, liability will generally be imposed on the parent.
To avoid being held liable for damages caused by a child during an automobile wreck, parents may elect to take the following steps to distance themselves from responsibility for the vehicle being operated by the child: (1) Parents could obtain separate liability insurance at appropriate coverage limits in the child’s own name; and (2) Parents could relinquish ownership of the vehicle to the child by transferring the title of the vehicle into the child’s name; and (3) Parents could require the child to perform the upkeep on the vehicle; and (4) Parents could come to an understanding with their child that the parents are not in control of how the vehicle is to be used, and document this understanding in writing. By taking one or more of these actions, parents would be attempting to show that the responsibility for operating the vehicle at issue falls solely on the child. Clearly the living situation of the child, the insurance coverage involved, and the relationship between the parents and child are considerations in making these determinations. These are good conversations to have now with your family members, your insurance agent, and your legal counsel.
As children approach adulthood, there are many considerations to continue to protect your child and to protect your own liability. If you have questions regarding your liability or another person’s liability for injuries to person or property, you may contact Kelli Haas & Associates, PLLC at (615) 567-7300 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.