Are the Parents Liable When a Teenager Causes a Car Accident?

Office Information
Hasbrook & Hasbrook
400 N Walker Ave #130, Oklahoma City, OK
Phone: (405) 605-2426

When a person is injured in a car accident, he or she has two options for recovering compensation: file an insurance claim or sue the driver at fault for the accident.  But what happens when the driver at fault is a minor?  Do his or her parents assume responsibility for the injuries and expenses resulting from the crash?  And just how often are teenage drivers involved in accidents, anyway?

Statistics on Teenaged Drivers and Car Accidents in OK

The Oklahoma Highway Safety Office (OHSO) publishes annual reports on automotive accidents throughout the state, breaking crashes down by location, weather conditions, cause of accident, and driver age.  The following data is taken from a 2014 OHSO car accident report, the most recent version available at the time of this writing:

  • Drivers, Female, Age 16 – 1,153 accidents
  • Drivers, Male, Age 16 – 1,147 accidents
  • Drivers, Total, Age 16 – 2,300 accidents
  • Drivers, Female, Age 17 – 1,409 accidents
  • Drivers, Male, Age 17 – 1,579 accidents
  • Drivers, Total, Age 17 – 2,988 accidents

Compare this data against OHSO figures from 2013:

  • Drivers, Female, Age 16 – 1,189 accidents
  • Drivers, Male, Age 16 – 1,090 accidents
  • Drivers, Total, Age 16 – 2,279 accidents
  • Drivers, Female, Age 17 – 1,406 accidents
  • Drivers, Male, Age 17 – 1,559 accidents
  • Drivers, Total, Age 17 – 2,965 accidents

The numbers don’t seem to indicate any one particular trend strongly.  The number of accidents involving 16-year-old female drivers decreased in 2014, but accidents involving 16-year-old male drivers increased.  Meanwhile, accidents involving 17-year-old female drivers stayed at almost exactly the same level, whereas accidents involving 17-year-old male drivers increased.  The number of accidents involving 16-year-old drivers increased slightly from 2013 to 2014, as did those involving 17-year-old drivers. Common causes of teen car accidents include:

  • Texting while driving
  • Driving while intoxicated
  • Driver distraction/inattention (e.g., applying makeup, fiddling with an iPod)
  • Lack of driving experience

When Are Parents Liable for Injuries Caused by Their Minor Children?

Once a teenager turns 18, he or she becomes a legal adult.  However, drivers who are 16- or 17 drivers are considered minors, which changes some of the legal considerations. O.S. § 23-10 is the Oklahoma statute that deals with recovery of damages, or compensation, in cases where the person at fault for the injury is a minor.  O.S. § 23-10(b) provides that “any victim, or the victim’s representative in the event of the victim’s death, shall be entitled to recover damages… from any person convicted of a violation of subsection B of Section 1273 of Title 21 of the Oklahoma Statutes or as otherwise allowed by law.”  However, “subsection B of Section 1273 of Title 21 of the Oklahoma Statutes” deals with criminal acts (specifically gun crimes), not car accidents – which, absent factors like DUI or homicide, are civil rather than criminal matters. So, does that mean injury victims are simply out of luck when a teenager causes a car accident?  Not necessarily.  When a person is injured in a crash involving a minor, the victim may be able to obtain compensation not from the teen themselves but by filing a claim with the teenager’s insurance company. As for filing a lawsuit, the plaintiff’s likelihood of success depends mainly on how much the parents knew their son or daughter was using the car.  An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision from 1924, Stumpf v. Montgomery, can illuminate this matter.  In Stumpf, the Court found the following: “In an action against the owner of an automobile to recover damages for an injury inflicted by the negligence of the minor child of such owner, in driving the automobile, the plaintiff is not entitled to recover, unless the injuries were the proximate result of the negligence of the driver and unless such driver was the agent or servant of the defendant and was at the time of the accident acting within the scope of his employment or agency.” In other words, when a plaintiff sues a car’s owner (i.e., the mother or father) after being injured by a minor driver, the plaintiff does not have a right to compensation unless both of the following are true:

  • The minor’s negligence caused the injuries or failure to exercise reasonable care.  “Proximate cause” is the indirect cause of an accident, as opposed to “actual cause” or literal cause.  For example, in a rear-end collision in Oklahoma, striking the driver’s bumper is the actual (direct) cause of the accident. At the same time, driver inattention or following too closely might be the proximate (underlying) cause.
  • Proving that negligence caused the injury is vital in all cases – not just those involving minors.  The plaintiff carries the burden of proof.
  • The driver acted with the knowledge and permission of his or her parents.