Anyone who has a teenager—or has been one—knows that kids usually try to end any conversation about the risks of drugs and alcohol as quickly as possible. But no matter how dismissive, it’s worth setting aside time for a serious talk about tort law. Although we aren’t here to give parenting advice, as insurance professionals, it is our responsibility to highlight and help our clients eliminate risks around even the most challenging or sensitive topics. So let’s address the topic head-on.
We all know that when someone under the influence causes damage to a property or injures a person, the victim (or victim’s family) can sue for damages. But these days they also can—and do—bring suit against their drinking buddies, the host of the party, officers of the fraternity, and oftentimes against people’s parents. For example, a family could be exposed to a multi-million dollar claim if their son was president of a fraternity where someone drank too much.
A Risk & Insurance article stated that, “families are sued all the time for the acts of their students who are involved in incidents…where someone gets hurt”. The article even mentions that an “attorney is going to look for a compensation source, and if it’s mom and dad, then it’s mom and dad”.
Not all of these suits are successful. Laws vary widely from state to state, and whether a person or their parents are liable depends on the circumstances. Still, most states have expanded liability for drug and alcohol related incidents to encourage more people to intervene and prevent accidents from happening.
So how can parents help mitigate these risks?
Of course emphasizing the harm – and risks – of alcohol and drugs is priority number 1. But we often recommend that families discuss these points earlier, rather than later.
• Don’t drink and drive or let anyone intoxicated drive. Create a family car service account, and promise your kids they can use it, no questions asked, when safety is in question.
• Don’t give alcohol to anyone under the legal age. Your child and your family can be liable for any damage or injuries they cause.
• Be wary of drinking games. A court might find your child encouraged someone to put themselves and others at risk.
• Don’t let parties get too wild. Many states have “social host laws” that hold the entire family responsible for incidents involving people who consumed drugs or alcohol at their homes, even if they weren’t directly involved.
• Be cautious lending the car. College students often share their cars with roommates. A friend’s accident could cause your auto insurance rates to skyrocket.
• Check out the greek organization before you rush. If your child joins one with a tradition of heavy drinking, know you might wind up in court over hazing. At Northern Illinois University, members of Pi Kappa Alpha and even some of their guests from a nearby sorority, contributed to a $14 million settlement with the family of a student who died of alcohol poisoning at a party.
What you can do to prevent a problem
When they are at your home or using your car, you have the responsibility to make sure they are being safe and legal. If an accident does happen where your child is involved, you want to be able to prove that you were not negligent and took reasonable steps to prevent problems.
• Patrol the parties. You’ll reduce your risk if you keep an eye on things to prevent underage drinking. If you can stay up past 10 PM, your biggest impact will be making sure that every guest that might be impaired takes an Uber home. Regardless, set clear rules for your kids.
• Don’t let bad drivers take the wheel. Many states have a “family car” doctrine, that hold you responsible for any accidents caused by your kids, no matter the age. In any state, you are more vulnerable if you let your child keep driving after you get evidence that they are a risky driver and have speeding tickets and/or DWI violations.
• If you give your child a car to use in college, consider putting it in their name. You may even want to do the same if you buy a condo for him/her to live in off campus. This may help insulate you from certain claims. But the protection isn’t absolute.
How insurance can help cover your child’s actions
Your existing homeowners, automobile and umbrella policies will likely cover your liabilities from most situations related to underage and college drinking, or drug use. Your policy will cover up to your limit of liability from bodily injury and property damage for you and your kids under 25 who live at home or are at college. If you aren’t sure you have the appropriate liability limit, jump on a quick call with your insurance broker who will be able to help.
The benefit however, is short-lived. After the cost of these claims are covered relating to a drunken joyride or pre-game tailgate party, your insurance carrier may not renew your policies. You’ll discover that if you have a history of claims from these types of scenarios, buying new coverage can be quite expensive indeed.
So, while it might be a challenging topic over Sunday dinner, addressing the ramifications head-on could be worthwhile for you and your family. Take a moment to call your insurance broker who will help you navigate the best ways to protect you and your family from these types of risks.