Dear Penny: A Teen Stole and Crashed My Car. I Didn’t Turn Him In. Can I Sue?

A teenager crashes a vehicle.
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Dear Penny,

My vehicle was stolen by a teenager at a party. He is an inexperienced and unlicensed driver. He crashed the car causing $18,000 in damages. However, he returned it to me the next day. I didn’t press criminal charges out of sympathy for him being so young and lacking judgment. The family preferred to pay out of pocket and I agreed.

The problem is that, while they paid for the damages, they refused to pay for a replacement vehicle for me during the two months the car was in repair. I lived without a car because I could not afford to rent one. The car also has a diminished value due to the crash, I had to pay its insurance premiums while it was not in use and I lost side hustle income. Is it wrong for me to seek compensation from this family? All told it’s around $13,000.

I think legally I have a case. I asked them to help me out with a rental several times, and they could only apologize for my “inconvenience.”

— Slighted but Sympathetic

Dear Slighted,

This is a frustrating situation, and kudos to you for approaching it with compassion for this kid and his family.

Legally, you can consult with a lawyer to determine whether you have enough information to justify a civil lawsuit against him.

Financially, I would ask yourself whether the sum you’re seeking is about repairing your current finances or looking for retribution for your inconvenience.

The time has already passed, so you won’t have the option to rent a car now if you do sue him. It sounds like you have lost money in this situation, though. There’s the lost value of your car and the missed opportunities for side hustle income. The insurance premiums are charges you would have paid regardless of the circumstances; that’s not money lost because of the crash, just an annoying detail.

If you’re seeking payment simply out of retribution, I recommend letting your sympathy guide you instead and moving on. Hurting the kid or the family won’t help you, and it’s up to the family to help him avoid this kind of behavior in the future. But if this has put you in a difficult spot financially, and receiving another payment would get you back on track, it could be worth pursuing.

If you want to avoid a lawsuit, you might be able to get creative to find a remedy that does the least harm to everyone involved. Maybe you can work out an agreement with the kid to make payments in installments over time or work it off through odd jobs that could free up your time for your side hustle (think: yard work, house repairs, cleaning etc.).

Whatever you decide, remember that family is dealing with a difficult situation and lost money, too (and parenting teenagers is hard!). Work together as allies as much as you can to find a solution that helps you all repair and move forward.

Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, author, speaker and personal finance journalist. She writes Healthy Rich, a newsletter about how capitalism impacts the ways we think, teach and talk about money.