When are parents liable for their teen’s car crash in South Carolina? Can parents be sued if they weren’t even in the vehicle when the crash happened?

The answer depends, but, in many cases, the answer is yes.

Below, we will cover four ways that a parent can be held liable for their teen’s car crash in SC, including:

  • When the teen is on the parent’s insurance policy,
  • When a parent co-signed for the teen’s driver’s license,
  • Under the Doctrine of Negligent Entrustment, and
  • Under the Family Purpose Doctrine.

When are Parents Liable for a Teen’s Car Crash in SC?

According to the CDC, teenagers between the ages of 16-19 are in the highest risk category for car crashes, and the risk is higher if the teenager is male, has teenage passengers, or recently obtained their license.

As a starting point, the law of negligence in South Carolina says that the person who negligently caused the accident is the person who pays for the damage caused. So, if a teenager is driving the vehicle while their parent is at home watching television, and the teenager is involved in a car crash 20 miles away from the parent’s location, the parent can’t possibly be liable for that crash…

They probably can be held liable, though, under one of the four legal theories below.

When the Teen is Covered by the Parent’s Insurance Policy

Teenagers are often added to their parent’s insurance policies when they first begin driving – in most cases, it saves money to add the teen to an existing policy rather than buy a separate insurance policy.

Whether the teen driver is covered by their parent’s insurance policies will depend on the language of the policies and SC insurance law, including:

  • The language in the parent’s insurance policies,
  • Whether the teen was listed as an authorized driver or excluded as an authorized driver, and
  • Whether multiple policies, including UM (uninsured motorist) and UIM (underinsured motorist) coverage, can be stacked to provide full compensation to the plaintiff.

In some cases, a teenager may have their own insurance policy that is separate from their parent’s policies.

Are parents liable if the teen has their own insurance policy? If the injured plaintiff cannot recover from the parent’s insurance policy, they might still be able to recover from the parents under one of the legal theories below.

When the Parent Co-Signed for the Teen’s Driver’s License

Another way to hold parents liable for their teenager’s negligent driving is when the parent cosigns for the teen’s license.

The DMV may require a co-signer before giving a teenager their driver’s license. Whether it is the parent, an aunt or uncle, or a brother or sister who signs, that person can be held “jointly and severally liable” for the teen’s car crashes.

SC Code § 56-1-110 says the person who cosigns for a teenager’s license, including beginner’s permits, instruction permits, or driver’s licenses, will be “jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damage caused:”

Any negligence or wilful misconduct of a minor when driving a motor vehicle upon a highway must be imputed to the person who has signed the application of such minor for a beginner’s permit, instruction permit, or driver’s license, which person is jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damage caused by such negligence or wilful misconduct, except that if such minor is protected by a policy of liability insurance in the form and in the amounts as required under Chapter 9 of this title and Sections 38-77-140 through 38-77-310, then such parent or guardian or other responsible adult is not subject to the liability otherwise imposed under this section.

There is an exception – if the minor has their own insurance policy with the minimum limits under SC law, then the person who co-signed is not liable under § 56-1-110.

The Doctrine of Negligent Entrustment

Is the teenager driving their own vehicle or are they driving their parent’s car or a “family car?”

Under the Doctrine of Negligent Entrustment, when the owner of a vehicle allows another person to drive it when the owner knew or should have known that there was an unreasonable risk of harm to others, they can be held liable for the damages caused by the driver.

For example, in Lydia v. Horton, the SC Court of Appeals held that:

It is negligence to permit a third person to use a thing or to engage in an activity that is under the control of the actor, if the actor knows or should know that such person intends or is likely to use the thing or to conduct himself in the activity in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others…

One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.

Negligent entrustment might apply when the owner of the vehicle knew there was an unreasonable risk of harm to others due to the driver’s “youth, inexperience, or otherwise,” and may include situations where the owner of a vehicle negligently entrusts their vehicle to an alcoholic or drug addict.

The Family Purpose Doctrine

The “Family Purpose Doctrine” in South Carolina allows an injured plaintiff to recover damages from “the head of a family” when they provide a vehicle “for the general use and convenience of his family.”

For example, in Evans v. Cusack, the SC Court of Appeals held:

Under the family purpose doctrine, the head of a family who owns, furnishes, and maintains a vehicle for the general use and convenience of his family is liable for the negligence of a family member having general authority to operate the vehicle for such a purpose… “one ‘who has made it his business to furnish a car for the use of his family is liable as principal or master when such business is being carried out by a family member using the vehicle for its intended purpose, the family member thereby filling the role of agent or servant.’”

The Family Purpose Doctrine is based on the law of agency – the teen driver is the agent, the parent or “head of household” is the principal, and the principal is liable for the actions of the agent.

How Can a Parent in SC Avoid Being Sued for Their Teen’s Car Crash?

Can you avoid being sued for your teenage child’s car crashes?

As a practical matter, it will be extremely difficult to help your child learn to drive, get their license, and get their first vehicle without making yourself liable along the way. You could, however:

  • Refuse to cosign for their permit or license (in which case they will not get a permit until they are 18),
  • If you do cosign, purchase a separate insurance policy in the teenager’s name,
  • Ensure they are not listed as an authorized driver on your own insurance policies, and
  • Never let them drive your vehicles (in which case they probably will not have a vehicle to drive because the DMV will require an adult’s name on the title for any vehicle the teen owns).

Questions About Parental Liability in SC?

The Charleston, SC personal injury lawyers at the Boles Law Firm can help you determine liability, gather the evidence you will need in court, identify all possible sources of recovery, negotiate with insurance companies, and recover the maximum compensation that you are entitled to under state or federal law for your injuries.

Call us at 843-576-5775 to schedule an appointment for a free consultation at our North Charleston or Walterboro offices or send us a message through our website.

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