I occasionally receive a call from a nervous parent, whose sixteen-year-old child is about to become a licensed driver. “Am I legally responsible if my child causes a collision that injures somebody else?”
The short answer: Maybe.
Arizona is one of just a few jurisdictions that recognizes parental responsibility for the negligent driving of a child. The Family Purpose Doctrine imposes liability on the head of household (like a parent) for the negligent driving of members of the household (like a child) who uses the family vehicle for a “family purpose.” The Arizona Supreme Court first recognized this doctrine in 1919, and in 2011 reaffirmed it as the law in Arizona.
So how do parents insulate themselves from liability for collisions caused by their children turned newly minted drivers? Parents should ensure the vehicle is titled, registered and insured solely to the child (which is not possible if the child is under eighteen years of age), and the child pays for the purchase, upkeep and fuel for the vehicle. And even if that is done, there likely will still be a factual question regarding the parents’ liability should the child cause a collision that harms someone else. Each case, of course, is highly fact-specific.
The best protection, as I have always advocated, is to carry ample limits of automobile insurance coverage, including a personal liability umbrella policy (with limits starting at $1 million). Yes, your auto insurance premiums will increase when you add a teenage child and vehicle to your auto policy. . . a small price to pay for the security of knowing you’re protected.