Can a Passenger Be Liable for a Car Accident?

Two cars in the aftermath of a front end collision

Car accident claims seem to always be filed against another driver. Why is it that you never hear about a car accident claim filed against a passenger who caused or contributed to a crash? Is it not possible for a passenger to be liable for an accident, even in the most extreme circumstances in which they actively try to cause one?

In short, “passenger liability” for a car accident does not exist. You cannot sue a passenger for your damages after a car accident – but only if they were truly a “passenger” in that vehicle. This wrinkle in liability law and passenger responsibilities overall require some explanation.

Driver’s Duty to Control Their Passengers

Every driver has a duty to safely control their motor vehicle at all times. If they cannot, then they should not be operating it, i.e., they should find a safe place to stop the vehicle until operating it would be safe. This situation usually applies when discussing drunk or exhausted drivers who need an extended respite to regain sobriety or concentration. It also applies to drivers with unruly or distracting passengers, though.

If a driver is at risk of losing control of their vehicle because of an unruly passenger, then they need to take immediate action to stop the vehicle and remove themselves from the situation. Or, in a less dramatic situation, a driver who is being distracted by one of their passengers — such as chatting with them or asking them to pass them food as they drive — also needs to assess the situation and stop driving until the passenger no longer distracts them.

Because a driver has a duty to control their passengers or avoid passenger-related distractions, liability for a car accident they cause still remains on them. Even if a driver had four passengers singing loudly in the car with the intention of annoying and distracting that driver, none of those passengers would get “passenger liability” in a crash because that is not a thing. Liability would stay on the driver because they failed their duty to safely operate their vehicle under given conditions.

Passenger Negligence Affects Their Own Liability

Passengers should not assume they are free of any liability consequences if they intentionally try to distract their driver, though. If that driver gets into a crash, and the passenger is injured, then the argument could be made that their own negligence contributed to the crash, reducing how much compensation they could demand from that driver. This unusual situation usually only plays out in single-vehicle accidents in which the passenger was not related to the driver, though.

A more common situation that can come up in a passenger-involved accident is the “assumption of risk.” If a passenger willingly gets into a vehicle driven by someone who they know is drunk, impaired, distracted, or exhausted, then it could be argued that they assumed and accepted a higher risk of injury by getting into that car. Assumption of risk will likely not eliminate the driver’s liability if a crash occurs, but it would probably increase the claimant’s liability by some noticeable degree.

When a Passenger is a Driver

Bizarrely, a passenger can be considered a driver whenever their hand is on the steering wheel of a motor vehicle. As a driver, they can be assigned liability for a car accident and have a claim filed against their auto insurance policy by injured third parties.

This rule can apply if a passenger intentionally tries to cause their driver to crash, such as lunging for the steering wheel and yanking it one way or another. Because the passenger had taken partial control of the vehicle, they are considered a driver.

For more questions about a crash caused by a passenger in Pennsylvania, call (888) 286-2850 and speak with Metzger Wickersham. Schedule your free consultationnow.

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