Provident Insurance has been slammed after it accused the parents of a boy cyclist seriously injured in a road accident of negligence for allowing him to ride unsupervised and without a helmet.

Darren Coombs, now 12, was left with a mental age of seven after he was struck by a car while riding to a friend's house in May 1997.

Darren, then eight, was given only a 25% chance of recovery and needs special education. His parents are seeking damages which could run into millions of pounds.

Provident maintains in court papers that Darren's parents and a family friend who allowed him to ride alone to the friend's house are responsible for his injuries and not its policyholder.

The insurer said Darren should have been made to wear a cycle helmet and supervised more closely.

It has written to the parents saying it plans to seek to recover from them any damages it may have to pay out.

Mark Harvey, secretary of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said Provident's action was motivated by money due to the possible size of the payout.

"This is a rather cynical move by the insurance company," he said. "Parents can't be held responsible for their children every moment of the day."

But a spokeswoman for the Federation of Insurance Lawyers said she had heard of a handful of other cases where parents were accused of contributory negligence.

But she agreed it would be difficult for the law to define a particular age at which parents cease to be liable for the actions of their children.

"The courts have to decide, looking at the circumstances of what happened to the child," she said.

In a statement Provident said: "Liability for the accident is in doubt and we are committed to fully investigating this claim on behalf of our policyholder.

"Unfortunately, in order to defend our policyholder, whom we believe has no liability for the accident, the only course of action available to us has been to defend the claim and involve the child's parents and childminder in the case."

The case is expected to be heard in the next three months.