The Rule of Vicarious Liability
When another driver has an accident in your car, you become liable- or responsible- for their actions through vicarious liability. Vicarious liability, also known as imputed liability, holds an individual responsible for harm or damage caused by another individual in either a negligence lawsuit or criminal prosecution. According to California Vehicle Code section 17150, “Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner.” In other words, victims may sue you for damages caused by another person driving your car.
Limited Owner Liability
Many states that attach responsibility to owners for another driver’s actions limit the owner’s responsibility. California Vehicle Code section 17151(a) states, “The liability of an owner, bailee of an owner…is limited to the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for the death of or injury to one person in any one accident, and subject to the limit as to one person, is limited to the amount of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for the death of or injury to more than one person in any one accident and is limited to the amount of five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property of others in any one accident.” However, these limits are inapplicable if you did not use sound judgment in lending your car to the other driver.
For example, if you provided your car to an unlicensed or uninsured driver, or an irresponsible driver (drunken driver, distracted driver, etc.). If you were aware of a defect in your car and still allowed someone else to drive it, you are possibly negligent. For instance, if you let someone drive your car with bald tires (i.e. tread on your tires are dangerously low and unsafe), and they lost control and injured or killed someone, you could be held liable.
What Will My Insurance Cover?
Car insurance follows the car and not the driver. Depending on your car insurance, the insurance company may cover the damage caused by and to your car even if you weren’t the driver, reducing the amount you pay out of pocket for damages incurred.
Your car insurance is the primary insurance- it is the first to cover damages. If the driver also has car insurance, their insurance is secondary- it will cover damages after the limits of your policy are met. If the damage surpasses your policy limit, and the driver does not have car insurance, you will pay the remaining costs out of pocket.
Permissive use occurs when one person gives permission to another person to use an item they legally possess, in this case, a car. In regards to permissive use, your insurance may cover any driver, family member in your household, and dependent children, if you gave them permission to drive your vehicle. In some states, permissive drivers have reduced coverage while behind the wheel.