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PARENTAL LIABILITY FOR UNDERAGE DRIVERS
By Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq.

Nick Bollea, the 17-year-old star of the hit reality TV show “Hogan Knows Best,” recently slammed his car into a tree in Clearwater, Florida. Nick suffered only minor injuries. However, his passenger, John Graziano, who had recently returned from his second tour with the Marines in Iraq, is now fighting for his life in an area hospital due to the injuries he sustained in the car accident. Photographs of the scene show Bollea’s visibly upset father, famed WWF wrestler Hulk Hogan, staring at the mangled wreckage of his son’s sports car.  As a parent, your heart goes out to Hogan; there is nothing more frightening than the thought of your child being hurt, or worse.  However, the lawyer in me wants to shout, “Hold on to your wallet, Hulk!” The cost of this accident could be very dear indeed.

Parents of underage drivers take an enormous financial risk every time their child gets behind the wheel.  Parents can be held liable for the negligent acts of minor drivers and most parents are not even aware of the extent of the liability. Although the levels of liability vary greatly from state to state, assume for a moment that Florida imposes the highest liability possible.  Hulk could be on the hook for all of John Graziano’s present and future medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of earnings and future earning potential, as well as millions of dollars in punitive damages for allowing his son to get behind the wheel.  But how is this possible? Why should Hulk be liable for something his son did?  The simple answer is: because Hulk was the person in the best position to prevent the accident.

Assume the following scenario. Your son turns sixteen and a half and you sign the application for his driver’s license. You then buy him a used car, and cover the car under your current automobile policy.  Over the next year or so your son experiments with drugs and alcohol and starts failing in school.  You and your spouse do not know quite what to do with him, but your lives are so busy that you just hope for the best. One weekend you allow your son to invite a group of his friends to your beach house in a neighboring state. You are present, but do not hover over the group and try to let them have some fun. At 1:00 am on Saturday morning you are awakened by a call from the police; your son has just flipped his car. All five of the occupants have been rushed to the hospital. He later tests positive for alcohol and drugs. One of his friends is now a paraplegic. You are slapped with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. You are afraid. Well, you should be.

 First, when you sign a driver’s license application for a minor driver, you can be liable for the negligent driving of that driver up to their eighteenth birthday. Some states, such as California, cap the amount of this liability. Other states do not.  Your insurance policy may or may not cover it.  The only way to effectively avoid this liability is to either make your child wait until age eighteen to get a license or, if you have already signed, to withdraw your support by notifying your state’s department of motor vehicles.

Next, you also have liability as the registered owner of the vehicle. Again, most states cap this liability at a certain dollar amount and insurance will likely cover you for actual damages. However, if you knew or should have known that the driver of your car was not competent enough to drive (either because of age, ability, or intoxication) you could be found liable for punitive damages.  As opposed to actual damages, which are meant to compensate the injured party, punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer (that’s you, the parent of an out-of- control teen) and can be based upon your ability to pay.  For those with significant financial assets, punitive damages can be several times the actual damages. Punitive damages are not covered by insurance and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Finally, you will have liability as the parent of a troubled teen. In other words, given your son’s history of drug and alcohol abuse, you knew or should have known that his driving a car could put others in danger and should have supervised him better.  Depending on the history of bad behavior, and what steps you took to try to get him help or prevent him from harming others, this lack of supervision could rise to the level of gross negligence and expose you to punitive damages as discussed above. Supervision liability is generally not covered under an automobile policy, and some homeowner’s policies will not cover it if the litigation arises from a car accident.

So what is a parent to do? How can you completely protect yourself from the above scenario? The answer is that you can never completely protect yourself; accidents happen. However, you can take steps to limit the damage.

  1. Do not sign for your teen’s license before they are eighteen. Period. It will be inconvenient for you and embarrassing for her, but ultimately this is the only way to ensure that your teen will not harm others while driving. If you have already signed the application, withdraw your support for the license. Contact your local DMV for more information.
  2. Do not let your teen drive a car that is registered to you. If your teen has independent means, have her buy and register the car herself. If not, buy the car as a gift and have it registered in your child’s name. However, be aware that although this may eliminate liability as the owner of a car involved in an accident in most states, some states will look beyond the titled ownership to the source of the funds used to buy the car. If you knew or should have known that your child was not competent to drive, a court might find that you should not have given the gift and consider you to be the owner of the car.
  3. Purchase the most automobile liability insurance that you can afford, as well as an umbrella policy. Teens are likely to travel in packs and the more passengers in the car, the quicker the damages add up.  In our scenario, actual damages could easily have run in the tens of millions of dollars range for a 17-year-old paraplegic plaintiff with forty years of lost earnings and chronic medical issues. What happens if the insurance is not enough to cover it? Your personal assets could be in danger, including your house.
  4. If you have a troubled teen, get him help! Morality issues aside, in order to prevent a jury from finding that you were grossly negligent in raising your child and imposing severe punitive damages (not covered by insurance!), they must be convinced that you did all you could to help your teen with his problems. Parents who have had enough and think, “I’ve done what I can – he’s on his own now,” are in for a rude awakening under our scenario. Just because you may no longer feel responsible for what happens to your out-of-control teen, and maybe rightly so, society feels differently. You (and your assets) may be legally liable for the misdeeds of your child until age eighteen.

Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is an attorney practicing family law in the Los Angeles area. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.