Teenagers are notoriously bad drivers. Sadly, some cause collisions injuring others.  When are Mom, Dad or legal guardians responsible?

Every few months, I get a call from a panicked parent that basically goes like this:  “Our child is about to turn sixteen, will soon be driving, and we’re terrified that she is going to cause a collision. Are we legally responsible if our child injures somebody in a motor vehicle collision? How do we protect ourselves?”

Arizona is one of fourteen states that recognizes the Family Purpose Doctrine (aka Family Car Doctrine). It has been in existence in Arizona for over 100 years. It basically states that if the head of the household provides a family vehicle for the use, pleasure and convenience of a family member, who then negligently injures another while driving the vehicle for a family purpose, then the parents/legal guardians are responsible for the child’s negligence.

So what’s a “family purpose”? Arizona courts interpret it broadly. The Arizona Supreme Court has held that the child could even be driving the vehicle in violation of the parents’ instructions (“Don’t drive to your boyfriend’s house!” “Stay off the freeways!” “Have my car back by 10 p.m. tonight!”) and Mom and Dad could still be responsible under the Family Purpose Doctrine.

Why do we have this law in Arizona? Public policy favors fully compensating those injured because of the negligent driving of others. Typically, children don’t have the financial means to satisfy a claim or judgment against them, so the Family Purpose Doctrine holds the parents or legal guardian responsible for the child’s negligence, as they typically have greater financial means to pay a settlement or judgment. Generally, Mom and Dad will have liability insurance to protect them, but can still be held legally responsible for the full value of the injured person’s damages that exceed their liability insurance coverage limits.

When we represent people who sustain serious injuries in a collision caused by a teenage driver, we often pursue legal claims against the driver’s parents. Typically, they’re in a better financial situation to pay a settlement or judgment. They also usually have automobile liability insurance coverage.

What do I say to the panicked parents that call us when their teenager is getting ready to hit the roads?  I tell them there’s no substitute for healthy liability insurance coverage. And, when their child turns eighteen, the child should:

  • Purchase their own vehicle, with their own money;
  • Have the vehicle titled and registered solely in their name; and
  • Pay for all the maintenance, repairs, insurance and gas.

Then, hopefully, with a little luck, if the planets align perfectly, Mom and Dad will not get sued if their child causes a bad collision.

Other than having very deep pockets, there is no substitute for a healthy amount of liability insurance coverage, especially when teenage drivers live in the same household with Mom and Dad.