If you suffered an injury in a car wreck that was the other driver’s fault, you naturally want compensation for your medical bills and other accident-related expenses. However, you’ve learned the driver wasn’t the owner of the car that hit yours. So, who’s liable, the car owner or driver?

As with most personal injury cases, this situation is complex. You’ll need a car accident attorney who can deal with these and other complications. The following is a look at who may be liable and why hiring a lawyer will provide the best opportunity for maximum compensation.


The Role of Insurance

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You’ll likely seek compensation from the insurance company covering the liable party. Insurance, in some instances, covers both the vehicle and whoever is driving – as long as the non-owner has the owner’s permission to operate the car.

If that owner lends the car to someone who causes an accident, the owner’s insurance will likely provide the primary coverage, and the driver’s liability policy will provide the secondary coverage.

However, not all situations are alike. Several variables can determine whose insurance is responsible for paying your damages. A skilled car accident lawyer can sort through all those variables when determining who to pursue for compensation.

Here’s a look at scenarios where you’ll likely sue the owner and when you’ll take action against the driver.

When the Owner is Liable

Suppose the owner allowed someone who was obviously drunk or otherwise impaired to drive their car, and that impaired driver hit you. In this instance, you can hold the owner liable for negligent entrustment because they made the irresponsible choice to lend their car to someone unfit to operate the vehicle.

If this applies to your case, your lawyer will work to prove the car owner is liable.

Your attorney will have to prove the following:

  • The owner had a duty to ensure the person to whom they lent the car was licensed, not impaired in any way, and had a safe driving history.
  • The owner violated that duty by lending the car to someone unfit to drive safely.
  • The violation of that duty directly led to the accident that caused your injury.

The Family Purpose Doctrine

A lawyer tapping the "Liability" option on a translucent touchscreen.

The owner may also face liability under a principle of the law known as the Family Purpose Doctrine (FPD), which some states follow. As you can gather by the name, the FPD applies to situations where one family member lends a car to another. Under this doctrine, the owner is liable for damages caused by that family member.

For example, suppose a father loans his car to his son, who then hits someone and causes an injury. Under the FPD, the victim can sue the father. The doctrine sometimes applies even if the car owner doesn’t permit the family member to use the vehicle. In states where this is the case, the law considers a vehicle to be similar to a firearm. The owner of the firearm has a duty to keep it secure at all times. The owner of a vehicle has a duty to keep that vehicle secure.

The impact of the FPD on your case will depend on the state where the accident happened. Some states only apply it when a parent lends a car to their child. Others expand the FPD to include other family members as well as people who aren’t in the family.

What if Someone Steals the Car and Causes an Accident?

In most cases, the owner will not face liability if they didn’t permit the driver to use the vehicle. This is an example of non-permissive use. Owners are typically only liable when they authorize another to drive their car.

When the Driver is Liable

Driver liability is usually the same whether or not the driver owns the car. If they caused the wreck, they’ll be liable. These are just a few examples of negligent driving that can cause an accident.

A man behind the wheel of a car, focusing on his smartphone.
  • Distracted driving: The driver is using a smartphone or otherwise distracted behind the wheel. They might be eating, adjusting the radio or other controls, talking to someone else in the car, or just looking out the window while daydreaming.
  • Speeding: Driving above the posted limit can be grounds for negligence because it can slow reaction times and lead to accidents.
  • Driving while impaired: Whether a motorist is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they can’t react quickly enough to avoid collisions. Impaired drivers may also drift into another motorist’s lane and cause a wreck.

Why You Need a Car Accident Attorney

Whether you’re suing the owner, the driver, or both, the objective remains to obtain the most compensation possible for your injury and accident-related expenses. The best way to do that is to hire an attorney as soon as possible.

A car accident lawyer will get to the bottom of who to sue by establishing liability. First, they’ll investigate to get the evidence needed to show you weren’t to blame. The investigation can include witness statements, accident scene photographs, police reports, surveillance camera footage, and more.

If the investigation shows the driver didn’t own the car, your lawyer will find out who does. They’ll ask the owner why they allowed the driver to use the vehicle. If the owner or driver chooses not to cooperate, your lawyer can request a subpoena to force them to answer all questions.

A Skilled Car Accident Lawyer is Waiting to Hear From You

Some people believe they don’t need legal help. They think they can not only find out who’s liable, the car owner or driver, but they can also pursue compensation. Those people rarely win their cases. Even if they do obtain compensation, it might be much less than they deserve.

Please don’t fall into that trap. Hire an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as you can. They’ll deal with all the complications so you can rest, relax, and focus on your physical recovery while they work to get the money you deserve.