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Parents’ Liability for Teens’ Car Accidents

Getting a driver’s license and driving a car on your own is a rite of passage for teens in Wisconsin and the world over. But many teen drivers are not yet adults legally, and their parents are still legally responsible, or liable, for any car accidents they may cause. Unfortunately, teenage drivers are at higher risk of being involved in a car accident. In Wisconsin in 2016, 10 percent of all 16- to 19-year-old licensed drivers were involved in a car accident, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. And over a 12-year period from 2005-2016, drivers ages 16-19 were consistently more likely to be involved in an automobile crash than drivers in any other age group, WI DOT says. Car crashes claimed the lives of 43 teens age 16-19 in Wisconsin in 2016, the latest year of published statistics. If you are the parent of a teen driver, we are sure you are concerned every time your child pulls out of the driveway. In addition to their well-being, you have reason to be concerned about the financial consequences of your teenage driver getting into a serious car accident.

Parents Likely to be Liable for Teen's Car Accidents in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, teens need to be sponsored by an adult to get a learner’s permit and then a driver’s license at the age of 16, unless the teen lives on his or her own. The sponsorship, usually by one or both parents or guardian(s), also makes the sponsor(s) responsible if the teenager causes a car accident. Under Wisconsin law (Wis. Stat. § 343.15), parents who sign their child’s driver’s license application assume joint and several liability for the child’s negligent or willful misconduct in operating a motor vehicle. “Joint and several liability” refers to multiple parties (teen and parent) being held liable for the same event or act. The sponsor’s liability is limited to $300,000 or the limits of any applicable insurance coverage, whichever is more.

Wisconsin requires that motorists have at least certain minimum amounts of auto liability insurance and uninsured motorist coverage (UM) to pay for damages in an accident:

  • $25,000 for injuries to one person
  • $50,000 for injuries to two or more people
  • $10,000 for property damage
  • UM coverage of $25,000 for injuries to one person and $50,000 for injuries to two or more persons.
Most families add a teen to their existing auto insurance policy once the teen becomes licensed to drive. Unlike some forms of auto insurance, liability coverage follows the driver no matter whose vehicle is being operated, provided it is an eligible vehicle. Once a teen turns 18, they no longer need an adult’s sponsorship to obtain a Wisconsin driver’s license. It also becomes possible to put the title of a car in the teen’s name, and the driver can obtain their own liability insurance. The older teen will then be held liable in any car accident attributed to their negligence. Putting a car and liability insurance in a young adult’s name may be preferable. After a serious crash, an 18- or 19-year-old will likely have few if any assets beyond insurance coverage and the vehicle to attach in a claim. The parents’ assets would be protected from a personal injury lawsuit growing out of the accident.

Why Teens are More Likely to be in Car Crashes

 

Teen drivers’ inexperience and immaturity are factors in the high rate of car accidents attributed to drivers ages 16 to 19. Among the top causes of teen drivers’ car accidents are:

  • Distracted driving. Young people are among the most avid users of cell phones, smart phones and texting devices, the AAA auto club says. More than half of teen drivers in a AAA survey reported using a cell phone while driving and more than 1 in 4 reported typing or sending a text message while driving in the preceding 30 days. Any activity that draws a driver’s attention away from the road increases the risk of an accident.
  • Drowsy driving. Teenagers get up early in the morning for school and tend to socialize late into the night, even if it’s online from their bedrooms. Many also work part-time, adding to fatigue. Lack of adequate rest can make a teen driver drowsy and slow reaction time, which can lead to car accidents.
  • Drinking and driving. In 2016, 15 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent or higher (the threshold for OWI, or operating a vehicle while intoxicated), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers after consumption of any amount of alcohol. In a national survey, 20 percent of high school students reported that, within the previous month, they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
  • Inexperienced driving. Despite driver training and Wisconsin’s graduated licensing program, 16-year-old drivers are still relatively inexperienced drivers. Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or be unable to recognize hazardous driving situations, including icy conditions. Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and tailgate, two leading preventable causes of car accidents. Teens are also more likely than adults to make critical driving errors or misjudgments that lead to serious crashes. For example, novice drivers who slip off of the side of the road tend to over-correct and steer into traffic.
 

Help for the Injured in Teen Car Accidents

Driving is an adult responsibility that our society has decided most teenagers can handle. When teen drivers make mistakes or are negligent or reckless, they can be held accountable. That, too, is part of being an adult. People injured in accidents with teen drivers can seek help from a car accident attorney to seek compensation for their medical bills, property damage and other losses. The car accident attorneys of Gruber Law Offices serve all of Southeastern Wisconsin, including the communities of Kenosha, Madison, Racine and Waukesha. Our legal team is committed to fighting for justice and helping our clients pursue the maximum possible compensation. We are ready to get to work for you. Call us now.