Can I Borrow Your Car — And Your Insurance?

“Bill, can I borrow your truck? I have to pick up a new mattress.” Questions like this are routine. Friends and neighbors borrow and lend their vehicles. College roommates borrow their friends’ cars. Six cars are parked in a driveway at a party and one needs to be moved so another car can pull out. The owner tosses someone the keys and tells him to move it. When situations like these end with an auto accident, whose insurance pays – the owner’s or the borrower’s?

In general, the vehicle owner’s policy is primary and pays first in the event of a loss. If for some reason the owner’s policy does not cover the loss or provide enough insurance to fully cover it, the borrower’s policy may apply. For example, assume that Joe has a policy with an insurance limit of $100,000 for injuries to one person and Bill’s policy has a limit of $250,000. Joe borrows Bill’s car and severely injures a pedestrian, resulting in damages of $300,000. Since Bill owns the car, his policy will pay first. It will pay $250,000 (his limit of insurance,) and Joe’s policy will pay the remaining $50,000. If Bill’s policy does not cover the loss (for example, if he had let the policy lapse,) Joe’s policy would pay all of its $100,000, but Bill and Joe might be individually responsible for paying the balance.

The owner’s insurance will also be primary for damage to the car itself. However, the borrower’s insurance can make up for a difference in deductible. Suppose Joe has a $500 collision deductible on his car and Bill’s collision deductible is $1,000. Joe totals Bill’s $5,000 car in an accident. Bill’s insurance will pay $4,000 for the car ($5,000 minus the $1,000 deductible,) and Joe’s insurance will pay $500 (Bill’s deductible minus Joe’s $500 deductible.) If Bill’s insurance is uncollectible because he didn’t buy collision coverage, Joe’s policy will pay $4,500 ($5,000 minus the $500 deductible.)

A person must have the car owner’s permission to borrow before the owner’s insurance will cover him. The insurance company will consider the person to have permission if he had a reasonable belief that he could use the car. For example, if Bill at one time said to Joe, “Take the car whenever you need to; the keys are on my desk,” and Joe had in fact borrowed it several times with no objection from Bill, it would appear that Joe had a reasonable belief that he could use it. On the other hand, if Bill never said anything to Joe about using the car, and Joe had to search Bill’s home to find the keys, Joe’s belief that he could use it might not appear to be so reasonable. In this case, Bill’s policy might not cover Joe’s liability for injuries or damages. Worse, Joe’s policy might not cover him, either.

Permission must come from the vehicle’s owner, not from a member of the owner’s family. Joe will not have coverage if Bill didn’t give him permission but Bill’s teenage daughter told him to use it. However, the daughter has coverage if she borrows the car, with or without permission. A member of the owner’s family has coverage without having to prove they had permission. To be considered a family member, such a person must be related to the owner by blood, marriage or adoption.

Before borrowing someone else’s car, we advise people to do the following:

  • Make certain you have the owner’s permission.
  • Make certain the owner has insurance in-force on the car.
  • Check your own insurance to see if it will cover damages the owner’s policy doesn’t cover.

An insurance agent can assist you with the third item. Ask the questions ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

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