February 2015

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By Kevin T. White, Non-Equity Partner


Insurance companies often compensate policy holders and other qualified parties for property damage and personal injuries resulting from a driver’s negligence.  Both fiscally and equitably, it makes sense that the company is able to recoup those payments from the negligent party. 

Unfortunately, the negligent party is not always collectible.  Fortunately, in certain circumstances, the company is able to recoup those payments from other parties, a concept known as vicarious liability.  These circumstances include: respondeat superior, sponsor liability, and parental liability.

Permissive Use

The most famous example of vicarious liability is respondeat superior – when liability is imputed to the owner because he derived a benefit from allowing someone to use his vehicle.  The prototypical example is a pizza place being held liable for the act of its delivery drivers because it derives a monetary benefit by employing the drivers.   

However, there need not be an employer/employee relationship for liability to attach to the owner.  In Wisconsin, the plaintiff is only required to establish ownership and permission.[1]  Once that is done, it is presumed that the owner derives a benefit from letting someone use his vehicle.[2]

Moreover, the benefit to the owner need not be confined to financial gain.[3]  It includes any benefit to the owner, including the owner’s own pleasure.[4]  Unfortunately, while “pleasure” is a broad category, it does not extend to the simple act of a parent letting their child use their vehicle.  While the parent may still be liable if the child causes an accident, simple ownership and permission is not sufficient to extend liability; more is required.[5] 

Liability of Sponsors

From Florida to California, it is a rite of passage for a child to obtain his driver’s license.  However, because there are inherent dangers in letting a minor drive a vehicle, certain states, including Wisconsin, require the minor to have a sponsor until they turn 18. 

Wisconsin Statute § 343.15 holds the sponsor, usually the parent, liable for the child’s vehicular negligence.  It states in relevant part:

Any negligence or willful misconduct of a person under the age of 18 years when operating a motor vehicle upon the highways is imputed to the…sponsor who signed the application for such person’s license. 

Though the above statue provides broad liability to the sponsor, it is necessary to insure both the safety of our society and the financial health of insurance providers.

Parental Liability for Acts of Minor Children

As any parent can attest, children don’t always make the right decision.  Unfortunately, some of those decisions involve motor vehicles and result in property damage and personal injury.    

In certain circumstances, parents will be held liable for their children’s actions.  Specifically, Wisconsin Statute § 895.035(2)(a) states:

Parents with custody of a minor child, in any circumstances where he, she or they may not be liable under common law, are liable for damages to property…or for personal injury attributable to the willful, malicious, or wanton act of the child.

This may seem unfair, but the simple fact is that children typically live with their parents, and parents therefore have the greatest impact on their children’s activities.  Accordingly, if a parent inadequately controls their child’s behavior, he or she will be held liable.[6] 

However, there are a number of factors that mitigate the parent’s liability.  First, not all conduct results in liability.  It must be “willful, malicious, or wanton.[7]  Second, the liability is limited to $5,000.[8]  Finally, though regrettably, some children simply cannot be controlled, no matter the attempts made by the parents.  In those instances, the parent will not be held responsible.[9] 


The basic premise behind each of the above theories of liability is fairness.  In the case of respondeat superior, it is fair to hold the owner liable because he derives a benefit from giving his or her vehicle to another.  Regarding sponsor liability, it is fair because the sponsor agreed to take on the liability.  Finally, regarding parental liability, it is simply fairer to place the burden upon the parent so that society may conduct its day-to-day business with the confidence that if a minor causes injury to it, it will be adequately compensated. 

[1] WIS JI-CIVIL 1600 Servant: Driver of Automobile (Presumption from Ownership of Vehicle).

[2] Id. and Hoeft v. Friedel, 70 Wis.2d 1022, 235 N.W.2d 918 (1975).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Krig v. Keane, 99 Wis.2d 805, 300 N.W.2d 83 (Ct. App. 1980).

[6] Jason Dimitris, Comment, Parental Responsibility Statutes – And the Programs That Must Accompany Them, 655 Stetson Law Review 1998.

[7] Wis. Stat. 895.035(2)(a)

[8] Wis. Stat. 895.035(4)

[9] Wis. Stat. 895.035(2)(b)3

Posted: 2/17/2015 2:21:07 PM by Tom Connor | with 0 comments