Can I sue a minor?

Q:

Can I sue a minor?

A:

Tort or civil injury lawsuits provide compensation to individuals who have suffered injury or loss from the actions of another person. To file a claim, however, the injured party must prove three elements:

  1. First, they must prove that the defendant had a legal duty to act in a specific manner.
  2. Next, they must prove that the defendant breached their duty of care.
  3. Finally, they must prove that they (the plaintiff) suffered injury or loss as a direct result of the defendant’s actions.

Like adults, minor children – through their negligent, intentional or unintentional actions – can often cause property loss or injury to others. Whether or not a child can be sued, however, is a complicated issue and can vary according to the age of the child, the type of loss or injury, and the state in which the action occurred.

Purpose of Filing a Lawsuit

The purpose of filing a civil or tort claim against another person is to receive compensation for a loss or injury. Because children generally do not have income or assets to pay damages in an injury claim, the real question is not whether you can sue a child, but whether you can hold a parent liable for damages and injury caused by a child.

With that in mind, let’s review when a parent can be held liable for their child’s actions and may be required to pay damages if they are sued.

Negligent Actions of a Young Minor

Whether or not a parent can be held liable for a child’s negligent actions can depend on the child’s age. For example, if your child is under the age of four, it’s generally assumed (in most courts) that the child is not liable for their negligent actions.

As a child ages, however, there may remain a presumption that they are incapable of contributory negligence. Historically, this presumption was fairly clear-cut with courts assuming that children between the ages of seven and 14 could not be negligent. Courts, however, now use standards that consider additional factors such as age, intelligence and experience to determine a child’s culpability for their negligent actions, and whether parents must pay for damages.

Additionally, in some states, courts apply the “Reasonable and Foreseeable” rule when assessing parental liability. For example, is it reasonable that the parent could or should have known about the propensity of the child to act in a dangerous manner? Could the parents foresee that the child was capable of causing the injury? The answers to these questions may, in some states, determine whether a parent is liable for a child’s negligent actions.

Actions of a Minor While Engaged in Adult Activities

Another issue to consider is whether the child was engaged in an “adult activity.” In this case, the child may be held to the same duty of care as an adult, and if they do not follow their legal duty of care, they or their parents may be considered liable for another person’s injury or loss. The fact they were a minor will not protect them from liability.

This notion most readily applies to minors operating a motorized vehicle. In this case, all legal drivers have a duty of care toward other drivers, and are held to the same legal standard to use reasonable caution when operating a vehicle. Drivers who breach their duty of care can be held legally liable for injury and loss.

It’s important to note, however, that state laws can vary. For example, in Colorado, liability is imputed to the person who signed the affidavit of liability associated with the minor’s application for a driver’s license. In Delaware, liability for damages can be assessed against the owner of the vehicle who gave permission to the minor to operate the vehicle. Review your state’s laws for more specific information about who may be liable for damages caused by a minor’s actions.

Willful or Intentional Actions of a Minor

Another issue to consider is whether the actions of the minor that caused injury or loss were intentional or willful. Currently, almost every state has a parental responsibility law that allows an injured party to recover damages if the actions of the child were intentional and willful (i.e., vandalism, property damage, personal injury or shoplifting). This legal concept is termed “vicarious liability.”

Keep in mind that many intentional and willful actions may also be criminal. In this case, parents may also assume criminal liability if their minor child’s intentional actions cause injury or loss. For example, if your minor child kills someone with a gun that you made available to them or failed to properly secure, you may face not only civil but criminal liability.

***
Bottom line: In some cases, some minors can be sued for negligent, intentional or willful misconduct that injures another party, but often it’s the parent who pays.

Note: The age of the child as well as the state in which the actions occurs affects whether or not the parent is responsible and the amount of damages that can be collected. Additionally, the parent’s liability ends at the time at which the child reaches the age of majority, which can vary by state. If a child has reached the age of majority, the parents can no longer be held civilly or criminally responsible for their actions.

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Written by Justipedia Staff
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Whether you're facing a legal issue or just seeking information, Justipedia aims to be your most trusted resource for legal information on the Web. With the help of legal professionals across the country, we put the law in plain language to help answer your top legal questions.

Justipedia was founded by Internet veterans Cory Janssen and Mitchell Allen. Janssen founded Investopedia.com and grew it one of the largest investing sites on the Web. Allen is an author, speaker and the founder of LeadRival, the leading provider of pay-per-action advertising in consumer legal services.

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