Parents have responsibility if minor child injures others while driving 

Janice J. from Oakland asks this week’s question:

Q: “Recently my son, who is 16, was out with some friends and there was a street drag race where some kids were racing their cars in front of a large crowd. One of the kids lost control of his vehicle and it slammed into my son, breaking his ankle. The kid driving is 17 and he was driving his parents’ car. Who is responsible? I heard that he has been arrested for these sideshows before, although he hasn’t hurt anyone. Can his parents be held responsible for allowing him to continue to drive their car?”

A: Janice, illegal street racing is out of control and it only gets worse in the summer months. California Vehicle Code 23109 Speed Contests and Exhibitions of Speed states that ”a person shall not engage in a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway.”

This includes a race against another vehicle, a clock or other timing device. A person convicted of engaging in a speed contest in violation of Section 23109 that proximately causes injury to a person other than the driver shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months and/or by a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $1,000, or by both that fine and imprisonment. The decision to prosecute a criminal case rests with the district attorney and if she or he decides not to prosecute then you as a private citizen cannot institute a criminal action.

In addition to any criminal action that may be brought by the district attorney, you, on behalf of your son, may institute a civil action for damages.

First, if the driver is covered under the vehicle’s insurance policy, you, on behalf of your son, should be able to look to that policy to compensate him for his injuries.

Since the state minimum insurance requirement is $15,000 per person and $30,000 per occurrence, there may not be enough insurance to compensate your son for his injures. Having this in mind, the law holds that minors (under age 18) are civilly liable for their own injurious wrongful conduct, but the law recognizes that there are some differences in the expectations society places upon them that affect and limit their liability.

For example, for purposes of negligence liability, minors are not held to the same standard of conduct as adults. Rather, they are required to exercise only that degree of care ordinarily exercised by minors of like maturity, intelligence and capacity under similar circumstances.

In effect, the standard of care imposed on minors may be likened to a sliding scale — the younger the child, the more leeway in measuring duty and breach.

In a case called Pritchard, the court held that minors engaged in activities normally engaged in only by adults and requiring adult qualifications (e.g., operating motor vehicles) are held to the standard of care of an adult under similar circumstances.

Therefore, in this case, since the minor who hit your son was engaged in an activity (driving) that holds him to the same standard as an adult, he will be held liable to the same standard as an adult and be held to account for your son’s injuries.

Parental liability in this circumstance may be imposed under a number of legal theories. While parents are not automatically liable for the harms their children cause, under a broad set of circumstances, they can be held financially responsible for their children’s conduct.

Parents can be held liable for driving related injuries if: a) they signed their child’s drivers license application; or b) they gave permission to their child to drive their car and/or they knew of their child’s dangerous propensities.

The doctrine of negligent entrustment imposes liability not only because of the child’s negligence but also based on the parents’ own conduct for negligently entrusting their vehicle to their child when they knew, or should have known, that their child was likely to operate the vehicle in a negligent manner.

This can be proven by demonstrating that the parents had knowledge of other accidents or injuries involving their son, his having been arrested or cited for unsafe driving behavior, or his damaging their cars before.

If liability is based only on permissive use of the parent’s vehicle, or because of signing the driver’s license application, California Vehicle Code Section 17709 and other statutes limit the parental liability to only $15,000 per person and $30,000 per occurrence.

If the parent themselves are negligent in their entrustment, then there is no limit to their liability.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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