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Can You Sue a Minor for a Car Accident in North Carolina?

Young white woman looking at the side-view mirror

Driver inexperience is one of the leading contributing factors for car accidents. In 2021, there were 49,606 car accidents in North Carolina that involved at least one teenage driver—nearly 18% of all reported crashes. 

Under North Carolina law, you cannot sue a minor under the age of 18 directly. However, a child as young as 15 can obtain a learner’s permit, and can begin some unsupervised driving as young as 16 and a half years old.  

So, what happens when a minor child driver is responsible for your injuries? Who will pay for your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages? What are your options if the child’s insurance company refuses to pay you a fair settlement? 

The good news is that you do still have legal rights and a likely path to recover compensation. 

Can a Child Be Considered Negligent in a Car Accident Case?

The short answer to this question is yes. 

Let’s quickly define negligence, which is a legal term with a precise meaning. In order to be negligent (or in other words, “at fault”), a person needs to: 

  • Have a duty of care to another person. 
  • Violate that duty of care. 
  • Cause damage or injury to the other person as a result. 

RELATED POST: What Is Negligence? Here’s a Definition You Can Understand – Myers Law Firm (myerslegal.com) 

A child can meet this definition of negligence, but the hard part is determining whether or not the child has a “duty of care” in each specific instance. Young children may not be capable of truly understanding the consequences of their actions, and can’t always be held to the same standard as adults.  

North Carolina addresses this concern by following the “rule of sevens” when it comes to the presumption of negligence in a personal injury claim: 

  • A child aged 0-7 cannot be negligent in a personal injury case. 
  • A child aged 8-14 is generally presumed to be incapable of negligence in most instances. However, this can be overruled if a court determines the child was old enough to know better, and failed to exercise a reasonable level of care. 
  • A child aged 15-18 is generally presumed to be capable of negligence in most instances. The onus would be on the defense to prove otherwise. 

Since 15 is the youngest age that a minor child can legally get behind the wheel of a car—and even then, only after passing a driver education course and test—teen drivers are presumed to be capable of negligence and are therefore held responsible for accidents that they cause. 

However, this still does not necessarily mean you can sue them directly, or that the child will ultimately be directly responsible for paying your damages. 

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Who Pays for My Medical Expenses and Other Damages After a North Carolina Car Accident Caused by a Minor?

Doctor looking at patient's chart

In most cases, the parents or legal guardians, via their insurance company, will be responsible to pay for damages caused by a driver under the age of 18. 

Making an Insurance Claim Against a Teen Driver’s Insurance 

Teenage drivers who still only have a learner’s permit are covered automatically by their parents’ or legal guardian’s auto insurance policy. 

Once a young driver is ready to get their limited provisional license (which can happen at age 16), they will need to provide proof of liability coverage. In other words, you cannot get a driver’s license in North Carolina without proof of liability insurance. 

The good news is that the majority of car accident personal injury claims are settled without requiring the injured party to file a lawsuit. If it’s clear that the teen driver was responsible for the accident, and you have strong supporting evidence for the damages you are claiming, you may be able to avoid getting the court involved. 

Making a Personal Injury Claim Against the Parents Under the Family Purpose Doctrine 

If the teen driver’s insurance company is refusing to pay you a fair settlement, you may still be able to file a lawsuit against the owner of the vehicle (usually the driver’s parents) thanks to the Family Purpose Doctrine. 

Under normal circumstances, an injured person is not allowed to file a personal injury lawsuit against a child in North Carolina, or sue someone for someone else’s negligence. The Family Purpose Doctrine provides an exception by allowing an injured person to file a claim against the owner of a motor vehicle after an accident caused by a driver other than the owner, under certain circumstances: 

  • The driver is a family member or member of the household, living under the same roof. (This applies to all members of the household, not just minor children.) 
  • The owner of the vehicle provided and maintained the vehicle for the general use and convenience of family members. 
  • The vehicle was being used with the express or implied consent of the owner at the time of the accident. 

In other words, if 16-year-old Jimmy is using his mom’s car with her consent to drive to school or grab some groceries for the family and he rear-ends you, Jimmy’s mom might be liable for any damages or injuries you incur. 

On the other hand, if 17-year-old Sally “borrows” her aunt’s car (who lives at a separate address) without her consent to sneak out to a party and runs a red light, Sally’s aunt would not be liable under the Family Purpose Doctrine. 

What to Do If You Are Hit By a Minor Driver

Just like any other motor vehicle accident, be sure to call the police to report the incident and request an officer come to the scene.  

If you are seriously hurt, call for emergency medical care. If you experience any symptoms at all, even minor ones, you should still seek medical attention as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours. Symptoms can get worse over time, and you may be hurt worse than you think. Seeing the doctor right away means you get the care you need, and begin accumulating relevant medical records to support a personal injury claim. 

Safely assess any damage to yourself and your property and make sure the other driver is okay. Get photos of the accident scene, vehicle damage, injuries you sustained, and anything else that could be relevant (including road conditions, weather, etc.) 

Exchange contact and insurance information with the other driver. If the other driver is a minor driving a parent’s vehicle, you will want to make sure get you get a name and contact information not only from the driver, but also from the parent or legal guardian who owns the vehicle. If the parent or guardian lives nearby and can come to the scene, it may be best to wait for them to arrive if possible. 

Finally, as soon as possible, reach out to an experienced personal injury lawyer and schedule a free consultation to discuss your car accident case and any legal options you may have. 

How Can Parents Protect Themselves if They Have a Teen Driver?

So far, we’ve talked about what happens if you’re injured by a teen driver. But what if you’re the parent of a teen driver? What’s the best way to keep them (and the others on the road) safe? And how can you provide financial protection for your family if your child does cause an accident? 

Here are a few things to consider: 

Own Insurance Versus Family Insurance 

Once a child earns their driver’s license, most parents choose to simply add their teen driver onto the family insurance policy. Many insurers will in fact require this if you have a child with a driver’s license living at home. 

However, a different option (if your insurance carrier allows it) might be to purchase a separate policy for your teen driver, if they have their own car titled in their name. (Under North Carolina law, anyone with a valid driver’s license can own a car—even 16 and 17-year-olds.) 

There are pros and cons to each approach. Having your teen insured separately will often be more expensive than adding them to you plan, at least up front. However, if your teen does get into an accident, rates for other drivers in the family won’t jump.  

Talk to your insurance agent for more information about options and pricing. 

Teach Your Child Safe Driving Practices

Father and Son are having a conversation in the car about driving

As your new driver is learning the rules of the road, be sure to communicate with them about liability and how insurance works. Discuss the major causes of teen driver accidents and how to mitigate their risks. 

Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs 

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a common contributing factor in serious auto accidents—even for teen drivers who can’t legally drink. If your teen finds themselves under the influence, make sure they feel comfortable calling you or another trusted adult for a ride home instead of chancing it on the road. Admitting to underage drinking or drug use is far better than putting lives in danger. 

Texting and Driving 

Cellphone addiction is rampant, especially among teens. Texting while driving is especially hazardous—far more dangerous than even drunk driving, according to the NHTSA. Talk to your teen about the consequences of texting and driving and how to resist the urge to look every time the phone goes “buzz.” 

Inclement Weather 

Weather conditions are a huge factor in motor vehicle accidents around the country—whether it’s heavy rain, snow, or fog. Be sure your teen practices in different weather conditions as much as possible before letting them loose in inclement weather. Also practice driving in bright sunlight and pitch dark. 

Basic Driving Safety 

Always reinforce the basic safety habits any driver should observe, such as wearing your seatbelt, using your turn signals, and checking before merging into a different lane. Create a checklist of safety features your teen should recognize before putting the car in drive. 

Myers Law Firm Can Help

If you or a family member were injured in an accident caused by a teen driver, call Myers Law Firm. We understand the intricacies of the law and Family Purpose Doctrine. We can help you understand your legal options and navigate the best course of action. 

We offer free initial consultations for all car accident cases and do not get paid unless we win your case. The sooner you contact an attorney, the easier it may be to preserve and gather critical evidence, and the more time we will have to prepare a comprehensive legal strategy before reaching the statute of limitations. 

To schedule your free consultation, please call our Charlotte office toll-free at 1-888-376-ATTY (2889) or fill out and submit our online contact form. 

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