In Florida, it is lawful for children under 16 years of age to operate an ATV… as long as they wear a helmet. But that will not avoid civil liability for the parents if something goes wrong. Indeed, it appears that the manufacturer’s warnings may be a weapon of liability against the parents/end users.
In Karen, Roger and Nicolas Fina and Nationwide Insurance Co. v. Est. of Sara Rose Hennarichs (Gerber, Damoorgian and Levine), Mr. and Mrs. Fina allowed their teenage son to ride an ATV despite the warnings on the machine and manual which said that minors under 16 should “NEVER” drive the ATV. The son allowed a 13-year old friend to drive the ATV (contrary to parental instructions) and the friend had an accident and died.
The parents/owners were sued for negligently entrusting the ATV to their minor child as well as negligently training/supervising him. A jury found the parents 70% liable, the son 10%, the friend/driver 5% and another parent 15% responsible.
A 1955 case holds that a parent may incur liability where the parent entrusts the child with an instrumentality which, because of the lack of age, judgment or experience of the child, may become a source of danger to others.
The parents tried to claim that the “lack of age” did not apply because it was not unlawful for a minor under 16 years to drive an ATV. The court disagreed, holding that it need not be illegal to be an act creating civil liability.
The parents likewise argued that they had no reason to believe their son would violate the family rule that no other children could ride the ATV. The court denounced that claim, finding that the parents had “set an example of disregard” when they ignored or overlooked the manufacturer’s warnings and “it should have come to no surprise that [the son] would have disregarded their rules too.” Indeed, the court even held the jury might rely on common sense to find the parents liable.
Note: this case does not appear to be limited to ATVs. Heavy tools, BB guns, knives, and other equipment or toys could easily fall into this category.