Four high school students piled into a car on their way to school. It was the morning of the junior prom. Nearly a mile from the school, the teen driver allegedly crossed the yellow line and slammed into a school bus. Her three passengers all suffered brain injuries. One was on life support for months, and has been rendered completely unable to care for herself.
The question is not only the amount of damages each teen and their parents suffered, but how much fault each defendant bears. Among the named defendants:
- The driver of the car, then a teenager/now in her early 20s.
- The private company that employed the bus driver.
Claims against the car driver’s father and the bus driver herself were dismissed last year.
Joint and Several Liability in Massachusetts
Anytime there is a Massachusetts car accident lawsuit wherein more than one party is considered at-fault, apportionment of damages is determined under a theory of law known as pure joint and several liability.
This means that each defendant deemed liable to any degree for plaintiff’s injuries can be found liable for the entire amount of damages – so long as the plaintiff isn’t more than 50 percent responsible for the accident that caused the injury.
The commonwealth law drafted to address this issue is MGL Ch. 231B, s. 2, which states that in determining the pro rata shares of tortfeasors in liability, their relatively degrees of fault aren’t considered.
Our Boston car accident lawyers can explain that courts interpret this law to mean that as long as the injured party is less than 51 percent responsible for causing the crash and resulting harm, defendants must pay damages to make the injured person “whole” (or as whole as possible in monetary terms). Courts in Massachusetts have held that such payments need not necessarily be ordered in the exact same proportion as the percentage of their fault
So for instance, in the aforementioned example, if the employer of the school bus driver is deemed 25 percent at-fault for negligent training and supervision and the teen driver 75 percent at-fault, the employer of the school bus could be liable to pay 100 percent of the damages if the teen driver/insurer can’t pay.
From there, the school bus driver employer has a right of subrogation against the teen driver/her auto insurer to try to recover their fair share. However, that litigation does not involve the injured person(s), who is entitled to damages first and foremost.
Special Considerations With Teen Driver Crashes Massachusetts
Despite Massachusetts junior operator laws, MGL Chapter 90 Section 8 & 10, car accidents remain the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers in the commonwealth, with the highest rates among those 15 to 19.
Top factors contributing to these crashes include:
- Driver inexperience;
- Driving with teen passengers;
- Nighttime driving;
- Failure to use seat belts;
- Distracted driving (particularly with cell phones);
- Drowsy driving;
- Reckless driving (speeding, tailgating, insufficient scanning);
- Impaired driving.
If you are injured or a loved one killed as a result of teen driver’s negligence, there are a few things that will be important to know.
Vehicle owners are often named as defendants in teen crashes under legal theories like negligent entrustment or legal presumption (meaning the control encompassed the where, when and how of borrower’s use of vehicle).
Violations of the provisions set forth in the junior operator laws may be used as evidence of negligence in a teen driver crash – but they won’t warrant a summary judgment on their own. The same is true for claims like negligent entrustment, where the owner of the vehicle entrusts control of their vehicle to someone the vehicle owner/controller knew or should have known to pose a danger to the public.
In Picard v. Thomas et al., 2004, Massachusetts Court of Appeal, the court ruled that violation of MGL c. 90, § 8B to insure that a licensed operator will provide proper supervision for an unlicensed driver (one with a learner’s permit/subject to junior operator laws) may come into play in establishing negligent entrustment – but only if that violation is proven causally related to the crash on which plaintiff’s crash claim is based.
Parents are often named defendants in teen driving crashes, as they can be held responsible under both statutory and common law in Massachusetts. If a parent is the vehicle owner, parental liability can attach during use of the vehicle. If the parent knew or should have known their child was reckless or careless, liability associated with a parent’s failure to prevent a child from driving can be asserted under the theory of negligent entrustment.
However, it should be noted that Massachusetts requires evidence that the act was “willful” in order to prevail on a claim of parental liability. In other words, one’s parental status alone isn’t evidence of negligence under this theory. Because of this and the fact that damages are capped at $5,000, most traffic accident claims aren’t pursued under the parental liability statute. (Minimum auto insurance requirements for Massachusetts start at $20,000, so this is usually the more productive route to go.)
Given that it is very expensive to insure a teen driver (auto insurance companies aren’t ignorant of the risk these drivers pose), they are more likely than not to have the minimum coverage. In a case of serious injuries or wrongful death, this is not enough to cover losses. That’s why so many plaintiffs in teen driver crash cases end up pursuing underinsured motorist or even uninsured motorist claims against their ow insurance carrier. (Teen passengers covered under their parent’s insurance are also eligible for this.)
Identifying all parties responsible is an imperative in these cases. An early consult with an experienced Boston injury lawyer gives plaintiffs the best chance of safeguarding their rights in the event of a serious or fatal accident involving teen drivers.
If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — (617) 777-7777.
Background On: Teen drivers, Insurance Information Institute