What is a registered owner’s liability if someone took their uninsured car without permission?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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What is a registered owner’s liability if someone took their uninsured car without permission?

My wife let our daughter take her car, registered in my wife’s name, to use while away from home attending a university in another state. The insurance expired and my daughter left the car on campus while she traveled home for the holidays. While she was away, another unlicensed student, took the keys from her dorm and drove the car without permission. However, they go into an accident while driving on the wrong side of the road. Since my wife is the registered owner of the car, is she liable for the damages caused by the accident, even though the car was borrowed without permission?

Asked on February 18, 2017 under Accident Law, California


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 5 years ago | Contributor

If the car was truly taken without permission, your wife should not be liable; but establishing that will likely involve filing a police report for car theft against the student who took the car. That's because when people take your car without permission, it is theft; and conversely, if you do not file a report and look to press charges for theft, you are essentially ratifying their use of the car--you're saying that even if they did not clear it expressly with you in advance, they  implicitly had permission to use it. If you don't file a police report for theft, it will be hard to establish that this was an unpermitted use.
You can also sue whatever driver was at fault in causing the accident--be it that student, or be it a 3rd party who hit the car--for your repair costs and for any other costs or amounts you have to pay out as a result of this. Of course, if the at-fault driver was this student and he/she not only has no insurance but has little or no money, then even if you sue, you may not be able to recover anything.

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