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Who Bears Liability for an Accident: A Car’s Owner or Driver?

liability of car accident

Determining liability after a car accident can prove critical to filing your claim and receiving the compensation you need to cover the full cost of your injuries. One question many people have: does the car’s driver or its owner bear liability for a car accident? You may see who caused your injuries, including that they drove distracted, sped, or ignored the rules of the road. When it comes time to file with the insurance, however, which policy should you use—assuming that both driver and vehicle owner have insurance coverage?

Determining Direct Fault for the Car Accident

When a negligent driver texts while driving, ignores traffic signals, or merges improperly, that driver bears fault for any accident that results. The driver who commits those acts may face criminal responsibility if the police choose to issue citations.

Criminal liability may include a ticket and the associated fines, points on the driver’s license, and even jail time, depending on the severity of the offense and how many offenses the driver has committed. Determining criminal liability can prove crucial to ensuring that dangerous drivers, including those who drive very aggressively or drive while intoxicated, do not remain on the road, where they can pose a danger to everyone around them.

The car’s owner does not bear liability for actions committed by friends and family members behind the wheel. The vehicle owner will not usually face criminal consequences for the negligent actions of another driver.

Negative Entrustment

Most of the time, car accidents occur due to benign negligence: a driver who speeds, drives while distracted, or simply does not have adequate time to stop before causing a collision does not do so out of active negligence or reckless endangerment, and the owner of the vehicle could not reasonably have predicted those minor errors ahead of time. Sometimes, however, the owner of the vehicle may negligently loan it out.

In cases of negative entrustment, the owner of the vehicle:

Knowingly Loans out the Vehicle

To prove negative entrustment, the injured party’s attorney must show that the owner of the vehicle knowingly lent it to the person that caused the accident. Suppose, for example, that the driver stole the vehicle. In that case, the owner does not bear liability for the actions of the driver.

Knows the Driver Cannot Reasonably Drive

Negative entrustment means that the vehicle owner knowingly lent it to someone who could not reasonably operate it safely—for example, if the owner lent the vehicle to an intoxicated person.

In that case, the owner of the vehicle might bear liability for the driver’s actions. Likewise, if the vehicle owner knows about a condition that should prohibit the driver from getting behind the wheel, or could mean that the driver cannot safely operate the vehicle, the owner might bear liability for a resulting accident.

The following may contribute to a car owner bearing liability for the actions of another driver:

  • The driver has a long history of ignoring the rules of the road or driving recklessly, including multiple past accidents.
  • The driver does not have a license, or the courts suspended his license.
  • The driver has a medical condition or has taken medication that prevents safe driving.

In cases of negative entrustment, the vehicle owner may bear personal liability for damages that exceed the coverage offered by their auto insurance policy.

Seeking Compensation Through Insurance After an Accident That Involved a Different Driver and Car Owner

Seeking compensation through auto insurance after an accident can prove complicated at the best of times. When the car driver and owner have two different policies, whose policy should you go through? Which insurance policy will most likely pay out for the accident?

Determining which policy will pay out for an accident may prove less clear-cut than you think.Consider the following:

The Car Owner’s Policy

Most of the time, the car owner’s policy will take care of compensation for an accident caused by the driver of that vehicle, even if the driver does not own the vehicle. However, some exceptions may exist to that policy.

Some policies may cover only named drivers.

Some insurance policies provide coverage only for drivers specifically named on the policy. Most people will include only the direct household members on their insurance policies: spouses or children old enough to legally drive, for example. In some cases, policyholders may add roommates or others who might use the vehicle regularly. Most of the time, however, they will not include people outside of that limited group.

If someone outside that group borrows the vehicle, that driver may not receive coverage under the terms of the driver’s insurance policy. Suppose, for example, that George has a policy that covers him and his spouse. His best friend drives his car regularly, and he knows that he does not have coverage unless he names the driver on the policy, so he adds his best friend, Drew. Later, Drew gets married. One night, he borrows George’s car to take his wife on a date. He has a few drinks with dinner, so he cannot safely drive the car home. His wife takes the wheel and gets into an accident. Because George never named Drew’s wife on his policy, George’s insurance may not cover the accident.

Some policies will specifically exclude household members not named on the policy.

Insuring all household members can prove extremely expensive, especially when those household members include teenage drivers. Some vehicle owners, to decrease their overall costs, may choose specifically not to insure certain members of their household on certain vehicles.

Tom, for example, has three children who still live at home: Sam (19), Sarah (18), and Steve (16). Tom has two vehicles that his children use regularly, both older-model vehicles with relatively high mileage. Tom, on the other hand, drives a sports car. He works with his insurance agent to keep his children off of the policy for the sports car, which decreases the insurance he has to pay for it significantly. Instead, he includes Sam, Sarah, and Steve as covered drivers on their vehicles when they get old enough to drive.

One day, Sarah and Steve have the two vehicles usually driven by the children, and Sam needs to get to work. He convinces Tom to let him drive the sports car. On the way there, Sam gets into an accident. Because Tom specifically excluded the children from the policy on that vehicle, the insurance company may not cover the accident.

Some policies do not provide the same level of protection for non-named drivers.

Some policies, while they do provide some protection if a non-named driver gets into an accident, may not provide the same protection that they would offer to a named driver on the policy. Vehicle owners who routinely allow others to drive their vehicles should carefully check the coverage offered by their policies to make sure they have adequate coverage in the event of an accident.

For example, some policies might cover damage to the other vehicle involved in the accident, but not offer the same level of protection for repairing the owner’s vehicle when someone else drives it. Some policies may also not offer the same level of protection when a non-named driver causes an accident.

The Driver’s Policy

Sometimes, drivers may carry policies that follow them regardless of what vehicle they drive. Other drivers may specifically carry policies that protect them any time they get behind the wheel, whether they drive a rental car, a borrowed vehicle, or their own cars. In those cases, the driver’s policy may offer some compensation for damages caused in the accident.

Usually, if the owner has coverage on the vehicle that covers the driver who borrowed the vehicle, the owner’s insurance will offer the first line of compensation. However, sometimes, the accident may cause more damage than the owner’s policy covers. For example, an expensive vehicle may cost significantly more than Florida’s minimum auto insurance requirements to repair, or a victim who suffers spinal cord injuries may have a long road to recovery and immense medical costs to contend with during that recovery process.

Other Factors That May Contribute to Liability

In addition to the complexity associated with trying to determine which policy will cover the damages from the accident, other factors may also contribute to the accident and shift the balance of liability — and, as a result, change who may have to pay for any injuries sustained during the accident.

A Driver Working at the Time of the Accident

If the driver who caused your accident was on the job, working as a delivery driver, driving out to a client meeting, or picking up something for the business or job, the driver’s employer may share liability for the accident, particularly if the driver’s employer required the driver to get behind the wheel in unsafe conditions. Furthermore, if the accident happens in a company vehicle, the company’s insurance policy may need to cover any damages, regardless of whether the driver’s negligence led to the accident directly.

Mechanical Failure

Mechanical failure can impact the balance of liability in several ways. First, if the mechanical failure occurred due to manufacturer error, the manufacturer may bear liability for the accident. On the other hand, mechanical failure and problems often occur because the vehicle owner fails to maintain it properly. For example, a vehicle owner might choose not to replace burnt-out taillights, or might ignore recommendations that he needs to replace the brakes or tires.

Any of those conditions can quickly increase the risk of a severe accident, for which the owner of the vehicle would bear liability due to failure to complete that maintenance. In the case of deliberately negligent ownership, the owner may bear direct liability for the accident and any damages that result from it.

What Should You Do After a Car Accident With a Driver Who Does Not Own the Vehicle?

Often, you will realize immediately, at the accident scene, that the driver who caused the accident does not own the vehicle. The driver may mention it, or you may see a different name on the insurance than the name on the driver’s license.

What should you do?

  • Report the accident. A police report can prove vital in determining the cause of the accident and establishing who may bear liability for any damages or injuries you suffered.
  • Collect as much information as possible from the liable driver, including driver’s license information, insurance information, and the car owner’s insurance information, if possible.
  • Seek medical attention promptly. Any time you have a car accident that involves injury or serious property damage, you need to consult a medical professional to identify and treat your injuries as promptly as possible.
  • Contact an experienced car accident attorney. A car accident attorney can evaluate the accident, take a look at the relevant insurance policies, and give you a better idea of who may take care of paying for damages caused in the accident.

Dealing with the aftermath of a car accident can prove complicated, especially when the liable driver does not own the vehicle. An attorney can help walk you through the steps you need to take next, including how to best file for compensation. Talk to a car accident lawyer as soon after your accident as possible.

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We know that accidents don’t always happen during business hours. That’s why our experienced lawyers are standing by, 24/7/365, to listen to your story, evaluate your claim, and help you decide what to do next. Call us now and we’ll see if we can pursue compensation for your injuries!

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