Who is Liable: The Car Owner or the Driver?

Who is Liable: The Car Owner or the Driver?
Little crashed autos on table in courtroom. Gavel and two small toy car models on desk in courthouse. Concept of lawyer services.

Car accidents happen every single day, resulting in legal and financial complications for everyone involved. When another person who is not the owner of a vehicle is involved in an accident, the critical question arises concerning who bears liability: the owner of the vehicle or the driver at the time of the collision?

Car owners and drivers have different roles and responsibilities when an accident occurs. Who may be liable depends on several factors, including state law, the specifics of the accident, and the relationship between the vehicle owner and the driver. A car accident attorney can determine liability to ensure victims pursue compensation from the appropriate party.

What is Liability? The Basics

Firstly, it’s helpful to understand what liability means concerning car accidents. When you hear “liability,” it simply refers to a person's legal and financial obligation in an auto collision. When a person causes an accident, meaning they are the at-fault party, they are liable for all resulting injuries and losses.

Liability for car accidents typically revolves around the concept of negligence. Negligence means failing to exercise the degree of care a reasonable person should have exercised under similar circumstances. To successfully establish liability under the theory of negligence, you must prove the four required elements:

  • Duty of care: Both vehicle owners and drivers owe a duty of care to others on the road. This duty includes such things as driving responsibly, obeying traffic laws, and maintaining the vehicle in a safe condition.
  • Breach of duty: The responsible party must have breached their duty of care. For example, a breach can occur if the driver is speeding, driving under the influence, or the owner knowingly allowed an unfit driver to operate their vehicle.
  • Causation: The breach of duty must have directly caused the accident and resulted in injuries and damages. Without a clear connection between the breach and the accident, it is difficult to establish liability. 
  • Damages: The victim must prove they suffered damages in the accident, including monetary and non-monetary losses. 

If a car accident victim can establish all four elements of negligence, they have met their burden and can hold the responsible party liable for their wrongdoing.

Liability of the Driver

In many cases, the primary responsibility for a car accident lies with the vehicle's driver at the time of the collision. This is because the driver is typically in control of the car and is expected to drive safely and responsibly. Drivers can be liable for accidents if they engage in dangerous driving behaviors, including, but not limited to:

  • Speeding: Speeding is particularly dangerous for both the driver and others on the road. When a driver speeds, they significantly increase their chances of causing a catastrophic collision.
  • Driving under the influence: Operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a serious offense that can lead to severe consequences, including both criminal charges and civil liability. 
  • Distracted driving: Drivers often become easily distracted while on the road, frequently texting, talking on the phone, and eating behind the wheel. Giving in to distractions can cause serious collisions. 
  • Fatigued driving: A drowsy driver usually cannot operate a vehicle safely. In fact, fatigue can actually have similar effects on the body as alcohol, impairing a person’s ability to drive.
  • Reckless driving: Reckless driving includes several risky behaviors, including weaving in and out of lanes, following others too closely, and even racing. It not only exposes a driver to liability but is also illegal in many states. 

These and other hazardous actions while driving can easily result in accidents and leave a driver liable for a collision.

Liability of the Owner

While drivers typically bear primary liability, vehicle owners can also be accountable under certain circumstances. These situations often involve the owner's negligence or failure to exercise reasonable care in entrusting their vehicle to another person.

Common examples where a vehicle’s owner may be liable include:

  • Negligent entrustment: If an owner allows someone they know to drive their vehicle, and the person is incompetent or unfit to drive a car, they may be liable if that driver causes an accident. Examples include lending a car to someone without a valid driver's license or who has a history of reckless driving.
  • Lack of vehicle maintenance: Vehicle owners have the duty to regularly perform maintenance on their cars to ensure they’re safe to drive. If an owner lends an unsafe vehicle to another driver and that car is involved in an accident, they can be liable. 
  • Employer liability: If the driver was operating a work vehicle within the scope of their employment, the vehicle’s owner (their employer) may be held vicariously liable for any accidents caused by the driver while they were working. 

When a vehicle’s owner is found to be fully responsible for the accident, the injured plaintiff might, depending on the circumstances, seek compensation from the owner’s insurance or the owner themselves.

Who’s Insurance Can an Accident Victim Recover From: The Car Owner or Driver?

Car insurance matters can be complicated, especially in a situation where the driver involved in a collision isn’t the owner of a car. It’s important to break down how insurance works in this scenario.

Usually, car insurance follows the vehicle and not the driver. But what does this mean?

If a vehicle owner lets someone drive their vehicle and that driver gets into an accident, the owner’s insurance will likely cover the accident and be responsible for paying the claim. However, this depends on several factors, including the owner’s specific insurance coverage.

Therefore, if a driver who borrowed a car causes an accident, that car’s owner’s insurance will kick in instead of the driver’s insurance. Should damages exceed policy limits and the accident victim needs additional compensation, the victim will likely have the right to pursue damages from the at-fault driver.

It’s worth noting these rules are different in no-fault states. In a no-fault state, drivers are required to carry personal injury protection (PIP) insurance. When a driver is involved in an accident, regardless of who is at fault, they can file a claim under their own PIP coverage to obtain compensation for medical expenses and other damages.

In no-fault states, victims may only be entitled to seek additional damages from at-fault drivers under very limited circumstances, for example, if they suffer catastrophic injuries.

Permissive vs. Non-Permissive Use

Regarding car insurance and owner vs. driver, it’s imperative to consider permissive and non-permissive use. Simply put, if a driver did not have permission to drive the vehicle at the time of the accident, the owner’s insurance can refuse to cover the accident.

Car insurance only follows the vehicle if the driver who borrowed the car had permission from the owner. When the driver had permission (aka “permissive use"), then the vehicle owner’s insurance should cover an accident.

On the other hand, it is non-permissive use if the driver did not have permission to use the car and the owner did not know the driver had taken their vehicle. In these situations, the owner’s insurance will not be financially responsible for the collision. Instead, the driver’s insurance will be the primary coverage option for the accident victim.

What if the Driver who Borrowed the Vehicle is the Victim?

When a driver borrows a vehicle and gets into an accident but did not cause the collision, they are the victim. Under these circumstances, the driver can pursue compensation from the responsible driver if the crash occurred in a fault state.

If the accident occurred in a no-fault state, the victim driver who borrowed the vehicle can file a claim under their own PIP insurance protection.

What if the Vehicle was Stolen?

Vehicle theft is particularly common. If someone steals a car and gets into an accident, the vehicle owner’s insurance does not cover that collision. The owner’s insurance will only cover accidents when the driver had prior consent to drive the vehicle.

What To Do Following a Collision with a Borrowed Car

Image of a car accident that occurred on the stomach.

If you’re involved in an accident with a driver operating a borrowed car, you may feel confused about how to proceed. The following steps can help ensure you protect your rights as an accident victim.

Report Your Accident to Law Enforcement

Many states have laws concerning what types of accidents you must report to local police. Usually, collisions involving injuries and property damage must be reported.

Notifying law enforcement of your accident can be beneficial, as you can later obtain the police report and use it as evidence in your accident claim. Failure to report an accident can have negative consequences, both for your claim and possibly with the law, as accident reporting is required in most states if there are injuries or certain levels of property damage.

Seek Medical Attention

Your health and well-being should always be a priority. Whether or not you feel injured after a collision, you should seek medical care as soon as possible. Some accident injuries don’t show symptoms immediately, so you may not know the full extent of your injuries without a proper examination.

Getting medical attention will identify what injuries you sustained, begin the right treatment, and build your medical records, which can aid in recovering compensation for your injuries.

Collect Evidence

Begin gathering pertinent evidence as soon as you’re able. Evidence can assist with your case and substantiate your claims.

After an accident, you should get the driver’s name and information, including their license, insurance, and contact information. Additionally, you can seek witness contact information and take photos and videos.

More evidence will become available in the days and weeks following your collision, including police reports and medical records. Be sure to retain any accident-related bills and correspondence as well.

Report Your Accident to Your Insurer

You must notify your insurer even if you’re not at fault for your accident. Insurance companies expect to know when their insured vehicle is involved in a collision. Depending on your policy, you may have a set number of days to report your accident, or you may need to notify the insurer within a “reasonable time.” Either way, it’s best to contact your insurance company as soon as you can.

However, you should be careful regarding what you say to your insurer. Even if you have an at-fault claim against another insurer, your UM/UIM coverage might come into play. It is wise to have your car accident lawyer handle these notifications and communications for you. This protects your rights in case you must make a first-party claim.

Consult with a Car Accident Attorney

Worried woman talking on cellphone with Lawyer on the side of the highway, calling for help.

Liability is usually a tricky subject, especially when you’re involved in an accident with a driver who is not the owner of the vehicle. A skilled car accident lawyer can provide much-needed advice and guidance as you engage in your journey toward compensation.

Time is Limited to Pursue Compensation from the Liable Party

State law imposes time restrictions on car accident cases regardless of who is liable for a collision, whether the vehicle’s owner or someone borrowing the car. Depending on your state’s statute of limitations, you may only have one to six years to file your claim in court.

Failing to take timely and proper action can have detrimental consequences. You may lose your right to seek justice and obtain fair compensation.

When you’re involved in a collision, do not wait to seek legal assistance and begin working on your claim.

A Car Accident Lawyer Can Help You Figure Out Who’s Liable to You

Determining liability for a car accident can be challenging, as it involves a thorough assessment of the circumstances, local laws, and insurance requirements. Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate the legal process alone. A personal injury attorney is available to support you throughout the process.

A lawyer can handle all case-related tasks, safeguard your rights, and do what is in your best interest. Based on the circumstances, they can determine who is financially responsible for your collision and take the necessary steps to pursue just compensation and a favorable case result on your behalf.

William B. Kilduff


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