Car keys on the kitchen counter aren’t an invitation for your child to take the car without asking and go joyriding. But that simple act could be enough to leave you liable if your kid gets into an accident and injures someone or damages another car.
At best, you will pay much more for insurance in the future. At worst, you might be personally liable for the damage your child causes.
Determining who pays when your kid joyrides -- especially if he or she is unlicensed and not yet on your car insurance policy -- can be tricky. The most likely scenario, insurance experts agree, is that you will have to pay out of pocket for the damage the child causes.
Here are some insurance issues to consider if your unlicensed kid joyrides and gets into an accident:
Is the teenager even covered by your policy?
Some policies will cover all household members, whether they're licensed or not, says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com. Others will cover only licensed drivers.
Any insurance company will require that you list all licensed drivers in a household; many will want to know the names of household members over a certain age, even if they are unlicensed. (See “Young drivers: What you need to know.”)
Not complying is a material misrepresentation and a form of insurance fraud, Gusner says. A joyriding accident could lead to a cancellation or nonrenewal. Every company has a policy, and it’s best to ask beforehand.
Can you make a claim for a joyriding-related accident?
Unless your insurer is very forgiving, you're unlikely to be covered for what the insurer calls “unauthorized use.”
"Normally a car driven without your approval is not covered," says Bob Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America.
It’s up to your insurer’s guidelines. Farmers Insurance, for example, will cover the joyriding accident. But afterward it would demand that the child driver be added or excluded from the policy, says Cristofer Pereyra, a Farmers' agent in Phoenix. Rates would be adjusted accordingly.
Will homeowners step in? Nope, says Gusner, “not unless your teen hits your house.”
Do you need to press charges?
“Unauthorized use” isn’t covered by most car insurance policies, but theft is -- as long as you have comprehensive coverage.
That leads some car owners to believe they must press charges against their own family members after a joyride-related accident. The problem, Gusner says, is that most insurers don't consider joyriding to be theft when a family member was involved.
Parents who do press charges open up a can of worms.
The parent’s car may wind up covered, but the person the child hit must turn to his or her own uninsured motorist coverage or the courts to be compensated financially. And it doesn’t make for pleasant dinner conversation at home, especially if your teen has to go to court or juvenile hall and pay fines.
"It's a mess," says Michael Braun, a personal injury attorney in Marietta, Ga. "Those types of scenarios are certainly a mess."
How much responsibility do you have?
"You're not responsible for everything your kids do," says Randall Kessler, a family law attorney in Atlanta.
That holds in a civil context if the child stole your car and you didn't foresee it happening, Braun says.
But if you could have foreseen the theft -- say, your child had a long history of misbehavior -- you’re liable under what the law calls "negligent entrustment," says Kessler.
Most states have a limit on how much parents must pay in a civil judgment for damage a child causes. To get more than that limit, plaintiffs must prove that the defendant's parents knew the child might joyride, Braun says.
If your kid has shoplifted or stolen a car previously, for example, hide your keys.
Kessler recommends hiring different lawyers for yourself and your kid if your child is charged with stealing your car.