Am I Responsible for My Student-Driver's Accident?

Parents worry when their children receive their learner's permit and begin driving on the road. But, what exactly is your liability when a student-driver is in an accident in your car? A New York appellate court recently addressed such a situation.

Mejia v. Kennedy

There are two related lawsuits at issue here. Both arise from the same car accident. Two vehicles collided on Jericho Turnpike in Nassau County. One vehicle was owned by the passenger and driven by her niece, who had a learner's permit. The driver of the second vehicle filed a personal injury lawsuit against the aunt and niece. The aunt also filed her own personal injury lawsuit against her niece and the other driver.

The aunt moved for summary judgment against her niece and the other driver. Nassau County Supreme Court denied both motions. The aunt appealed the denial of summary judgment against her niece on the question of liability. But, upon review, the Appellate Division, Second Department, agreed with the Supreme Court.

The Second Department noted that, according to the aunt's own submissions, her niece's testimony regarding the accident was inconsistent. That alone warranted denial of summary judgment, as witness credibility is usually determined by a jury. But, in addition, the court said there were questions regarding the aunt's culpability for the accident given her legal duty to supervise her niece.

A person holding a learner's permit, rather than a driver's license, may only operate a motor vehicle within the State of New York “under the immediate supervision” of a licensed driver. In turn, as the Second Department has explained in prior cases, “[t]he licensed driver is under a duty to use general or reasonable care in the instruction and supervision of the learner-driver, but the negligence of the learner-driver is not imputable to the licensed driver.”

This means that, in theory, the aunt could be held liable to the driver of the other car for failing to properly supervise her niece; simultaneously, the aunt may be able to recover damages from her niece owing to the latter's own negligence. According to the record before the Second Department, the accident here was the result of the niece misunderstanding a traffic signal and proceeding into an intersection where she collided with the other vehicle. The aunt admitted that she never properly instructed or warned her niece about how to correctly read the traffic signal. This is enough, the Second Department said, to raise an “issue of fact” with respect to the aunt's failure to exercise “reasonable care” over her student-driver niece.

Protecting Yourself Against Student-Drivers

If teenagers in your life are learning to drive, always be vigilant in supervising their use of a motor vehicle. It is not enough to simply sit in the car and watch. You must actively instruct and warn a student-driver about any potential hazard that may lead to a motor vehicle accident. Failure to exercise such care may prove costly to you.

And, if you have been the victim of negligent driving on the part of a student-driver or their supervising adult, you should consult with an experienced New York accident attorney who can advise you on your legal options. Contact our office right away to speak with someone.