Parental Civil Liability

Each state has its own parental liability laws. These laws govern the civil and criminal liability of parents for the actions of their children. Parental civil liability flows from the parent-child relationship. 

Parents supervise and otherwise provide control or direction to their minor children. Parental civil liability is a form of vicarious liability. Parents can be held responsible for their children's harmful actions much the same way that employers may be responsible for the harmful actions of their employees. Vicarious liability means that the superior party can be held responsible for the actions of their agents or subordinates.

In a common scenario, the minor child causes injury to another or property damage to another's property. Although the parent did not directly commit the act in question, vicarious liability will extend to the parent based on parental supervision of the child and the child's conduct.

Parental civil liability differs from parental criminal liability. There are times when the law identifies a parent's misconduct or behaviors as criminal acts. Examples include state crimes such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor or endangering a child. Civil liability exposes a parent to monetary damages and other civil remedies. Criminal liability exposes a parent to potential jail time and fines.

Read on to learn more about parental civil liability and ways in which parents could be forced to pay damages for the actions of their children.

How Do States Define a Minor Child?

States define the age of majority. Most set it at 18 years of age. Some set it at another age. Basically, anyone under the age of majority in a given state is a minor child.

Ohio provides a good example. In Ohio, a person who is 18 years old and not legally disabled is an adult and has reached the age of majority. However, in Nebraska, the age of majority is 19. Mississippi is the only state that sets the age of majority at 21. There may be reasons that a child will emancipate prior to the age of majority. For example, if a child marries prior to the age of majority, they are recognized as an adult.

Financial Responsibility

Parental responsibility laws in a number of states hold parents financially responsible for damages caused by their minor children. Damages may stem from personal injury or property damage that the child caused. Once the child is of majority age (which in most states is 18), the child is no longer a minor and the parents are no longer liable. If a court has terminated parental rights over a minor, the parent also won't be liable for any acts of the minor. Termination of parental rights ends the legal parent-child relationship.

Some states, however, place limits on the amount of exposure parents have under civil liability statutes. Parental civil liability laws vary from state to state, but many cover such acts as:

  • Torts and Personal Injury, where torts are civil wrongs; assault and battery are intentional torts
  • Vandalism to personal, government, or school property
  • Theft
  • Defacement or destruction of the national and state flags, cemetery headstones, public monuments, or historical markers
  • Property destroyed in hate crimes based on race or religion, such as ransacking a synagogue
  • Motor vehicle accidents and collisions

State laws vary on the level of intent required to reach liability in these cases. Some states require proof that the child committed willful acts or engaged in willful misconduct. Other states may find parents liable for the acts of their children at a lesser level of intent. Motor vehicle liability may only require a showing of negligent conduct.

State laws also vary regarding the types and amounts of damages available in a parental liability suit. States may provide only a remedy for compensatory or actual damages. They may limit the injured party's recovery to a maximum amount, such as $10,000. In some states, winning the parental liability suit may entitle you to recover attorney fees and court costs as well.

Parental Civil Liability in Selected States

Here is a sample of state laws on parental civil liability for your review:

California: The state may find a parent liable for willful misconduct of their child that results in injury or death or property damage. State law caps damages at $25,000 per act but can increase the cap every two years. The injured party can also recover attorney fees and court costs.

Hawaii: The state may find a parent liable for negligent or intentional acts of their unmarried minor child. Hawaii also extends liability to those who sign the child's application for a driver's license for damages from motor vehicle accidents. State law does not cap damages.

Texas: The state may find a parent liable for willful misconduct of their child that causes damage to property. A parent may be liable for negligent acts of their child if the negligent acts can be attributed to the parent. State law caps damages at $25,000 per act. The injured party can also recover attorney fees and court costs.

New Jersey: The state may find a parent liable for school property damage caused by their child, including court costs. A parent may be liable for their child's willful damage to a railroad, street railway, traction railway, or autobus public utility. The state caps damages at $5,000 per act, plus court costs.

Ohio: The state may find a parent liable for willful misconduct of their child that causes property damage, assaults another with force likely to cause great bodily harm, or results in theft from another. State law caps damages at $10,000 per act, plus court costs. A parent may be liable for knowing the misconduct of their child who commits vandalism, desecration, or ethnic intimidation. State law caps damages at $15,000 per act, plus attorney fees and court costs. A parent may be liable for negligent or willful misconduct of their child caused by a motor vehicle accident. State law does not cap damages under state law for motor vehicle accidents.

Colorado: The state may find a parent liable for deliberate or knowing acts of their child that cause property damage or personal injury. State law caps damages at $3,500 per act, plus attorney fees and court costs. A parent may be liable for their child's thefts as well. State law does not cap damages. They are seen as compensatory. Parents can also face a fine up to $250.

Negligent Supervision

A parent is liable for a child's negligent acts if the parent knows or has reason to know that it is necessary to control the child and the parent fails to take reasonable actions to do so. This legal theory is known as negligent supervision or parental negligence. It stems from the common law tort of negligence.

Liability for negligent supervision is not limited to parents. Grandparents, guardians, and others with custody and control of a child may also be liable under these circumstances. There is usually no dollar limit on this type of liability. An umbrella or homeowner's insurance policy may offer the adult some protection in a lawsuit.

The "Family Car" Doctrine

There is also parental liability through the Family Car Doctrine, which holds the owner of a family car legally responsible for any damage caused by a family member when driving, if the owner knew of—and consented to—the family member's use of the car. About half of the states apply this doctrine, known under the broader theory of negligent entrustment. Thus, even if a parent doesn't have a minor household member listed on the auto insurance policy, under the family car doctrine, the parent remains liable. In some states, the family care doctrine comes from common law and not a statute.

Most insurance policies have special provisions for members of the household under the age of eighteen. Typically, the policy must include minors who obtain a driver's license. The car owner would not be able to invoke the uninsured motorist provision for a minor child driver residing in the insured's household and driving the insured's vehicle.

Do You Have a Situation Where Parental Civil Liability Is an Issue? Get Legal Help Today

Has your minor child physically harmed someone or damaged their property? Were you harmed by a child who was not properly supervised? Questions of parental civil liability involve elements of family law and personal injury law. Consider seeking legal advice based on your situation. You can consult with a family law attorney on any concerns you have about parental liability. If you were harmed by someone's child, you may want to talk to a personal injury attorney to discuss what legal options may be open to you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Parental liability laws are different in every state
  • Liability cases are complex and a skilled attorney is essential
  • Establishing or terminating parental rights will involve a court process

An attorney can help protect your rights after your child’s negligent or criminal acts. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

If you are in the midst of a parental rights or liability case, it may be an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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