It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: while at the playground, or during an otherwise harmless play session, your child intentionally strikes and injures another child; or, similarly, you may learn that your child has vandalized your neighbor’s property.
What are the legal ramifications for you, as the parent?
This article explores the concept of parental liability—situations where you, as a parent, can be held liable for the wrongful acts of your minor child.
Parenting and the Law
Parents are generally expected to instill the proper core values and patterns of responsible behavior in their children. This responsibility holds true even when a child is temporarily not under a parent's direct supervision, such as when they have to attend school. While, in many cases, parents can personally monitor or correct a child's behavior in real time, what happens if the child unexpectedly causes harm to another person or damages property when their parents aren't around?
The law in almost every state holds parents or legal guardians liable for property damages or personal injuries caused by a minor, depending on the circumstances. Such liability can arise in either of two forms: statutory liability or common law liability.
Common Law Liability
Common law encompasses "judge-made law"—a law that exists apart from legislatively-adopted statutes, and which has been developed through decades of decided cases in court. Under common law, parents can be held liable for damages caused by their child’s unlawful acts under either of two circumstances. First, a parent is liable if he or she directs, encourages or approves the child's conduct. Think here of the over-zealous Little League coach who encourages his son, the pitcher, to throw at the opposing player’s head.
Second, the parent is liable if he or she is aware that the child has certain behavioral propensities, and yet fails to prevent the child from committing foreseeable acts that result in harm to a third party. For example, liability could attach under this standard if a parent knew that his or her child, a skiing novice, had had an accident on his or her first run on a bunny hill, and yet still allowed the child to ski on a black diamond run, resulting in an accident that injured another skier. However, because certain special circumstances must be satisfied, the common law standard of liability is not at all automatic in its application. As stated in an older Massachusetts high court case, "A father is not liable [at common law] for the torts of his minor son, simply because of paternity." (Smith v. Jordan, 211 Mass. 269, 270 (1912).)
All states impose some level of parental liability via their statutes. The key distinction among states in this particular area of law is whether a negligent act committed by a child can already give rise to parental liability, or if it must be shown that the child actually committed an intentional act in order to create liability for the parent. In intentional-act states, the higher standard applies: no parent can be held liable for any property damage or personal injury caused by his or her child’s conduct absent a showing that the child intended to cause damage or harm. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia. In contrast, mere negligence on the part of a child is enough to trigger parental liability in both Hawaii and Texas, and also in instances where a child operates a motor vehicle in California, Connecticut, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio. An intermediate "reckless" act standard (as the minimum threshold) applies in several other states, including Delaware, Indiana, Oregon and Utah.
In the reverse situation—in which your child, or your property, was harmed by another family’s child—it is typically easier to recover from the offending child’s parent in Hawaii and Texas.
Monetary Limits on Parental Liability
Almost all states impose monetary limits on the liability that a parent can face for actions committed by their minor children. Exceptions to this include the states of Delaware, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Florida, where there are no parental monetary limits for a plaintiff’s recoverable damages that are caused by a minor defendant in an auto accident. For Louisiana, there are no monetary caps at all for parental liability damages. As a word of caution, if you decide to splurge on your next family vacation and gather up the kids to go to the Aloha state, note that experts consider Hawaii’s parental responsibility law to be one of the most broadly applied laws, with no monetary limits, and where liability is imposed for both negligent and intentional torts committed by unemancipated minors.
Parental Liability for Acts of Theft Committed by a Child
No parent wants to receive a phone call from their local shopping mall security office (or police station) advising them of a shoplifting incident involving their child. Several states maintain statutes attributing parental liability for acts of theft or shoplifting committed by minor children. Those states are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
Parental Liability for Acts of Vandalism Committed by a Child
While we all admire the artwork of Banksy, the noted British street artist who uses city walls for art canvasses, this admiration does not cure the prohibited nature of his acts of vandalism (spray-painting public or private property). When minors dabble in this street "art," their parents can be held responsible in several states. In California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin, parents can be held liable for property damage and vandalism caused by their children. In Florida, there is no dollar limit on parental damages for instances of vandalism and, in California, the offending child’s parents are required to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees (upon a finding of liability).
Both Nevada and California impose statutory liability against parents for firearm use by their children. In California, liability applies if the parent affirmatively permits a minor child to have access to a firearm, or permits the firearm to be accessible to the child. In Nevada, liability attaches if the child has been convicted of a criminal offense, the parent permits the child to use a firearm, and the child causes damage with its use.
Editor's Note: The above article does not provide legal advice, and instead provides general information. None of this information is tailored to any specific litigation to which you may be a party.