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Passenger Liability In A Car Accident

In the early morning hours, four 14-year old high school freshman decided to sneak out of their homes, steal a parent’s car, and go for a joyride in an upscale suburban Chicago neighborhood.  Despite the wet road conditions, the carload of thrill seeking teens thought it would be “cool” to exceed 100 mph.  The young, illegal driver, encouraged by his passengers, increased the speed along the curvy, wet road and as the boys egged him on, urging him to drive faster and faster, the inexperienced, unlicensed driver lost control of the car.  Once control was lost, the car flew off the road, over the curb, and crashed through the garage of a home.  Three of the boys were wearing seat belts; the one passenger, who was not wearing a seat belt, died in the accident.  The driver was arrested and charged in his friend’s death.

Liability in a Single-Car Accident

In most single-car auto accidents liability rests solely on the driver.  After all, the driver is in control of the car and takes full responsibility of driving, following the “Rules of Road”.  If a driver operates his or her car in a reckless way and causes an accident, how can that be the fault of anyone but the driver?

While the facts surrounding case are terribly sad and tragic, an argument can be made that all teens, not just the driver, should share liability for the death, injury, and property damage that resulted from the accident.  In criminal law, there is a doctrine known as conspiracy.  A conspiracy exists when two or more  parties make an agreement to break the law and at least one person takes an overt step to commit the crime.  In this case, the four boys planned to break the law by stealing a car and going for a joy ride, even though none of them had a driver’s license.  The boys’ illegal agreement is evidenced by each of them sneaking out the house without their parent’s knowledge and all of them getting into the car known to be taken without permission.  Furthermore, each of the boys encouraged the driver to break the law by exceeding the speed limit by more than 50 mph.

Comparative Negligence

If a court finds that such a conspiracy existed, the result might be that instead of just the driver facing criminal liability in the death of the passenger, but all three of the other teens would also face criminal charges.  As for civil liability, the family of the deceased teen could file a civil wrongful death lawsuit against all three surviving boys.  On the other hand, the driver could argue that the boy, who died, contributed to the accident that led to his death by encouraging the driver to speed and by failing to wear a seat belt.  As a result, any financial award to the deceased teen’s family would be reduced based on the boy’s comparative negligence.

Should Teens Be Held More Accountable?

Based on the laws and precedent in the relevant jurisdiction, an argument under a conspiracy theory or a defense based on comparative negligence may ultimately have no impact on civil or criminal liability under the circumstance of this case or similar cases.  However, teen joyriding is common problem as are car accidents caused by both unlicensed and licensed teens.  Do you think fewer teens would be injured in car accidents caused by teen drivers if passengers could face liability for conspiring to break traffic laws?

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