Parents may be liable for the negligent or criminal acts of their children. In most cases, this begins when children reach the age of reason and ends at the age of majority. Parental responsibility laws can subject parents to lawsuits or criminal sanctions if their children commit crimes or cause injuries or property damage to a third party.
Parental liability comes from a parent's traditional duty to supervise their children. Many liken it to an employer's responsibility for the actions of their employees.
Although parents cannot predict every action or control every moment of a child's life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ideally, the specter of parental liability should cause a parent to know what a child is doing on a daily basis.
For many reasons, parents should be actively involved in raising their children. Parents need to make sure a child's basic needs are met. This goes beyond food, clothing, and shelter. Parents must support a child's physical and mental health throughout childhood. Children need positive role models. They also need structure and discipline. They need parents who make them take responsibility for their actions, both major achievements and wrongful acts.
This section covers the basics of parental liability, including criminal and civil liability and the implications of parental liability on insurance coverage.
Civil Parental Liability
In all 50 states, parents are responsible for malicious or willful property damage done by their children. In many states, parents may have responsibility for negligence in failing to supervise their children or in motor vehicle accidents. This is called civil parental liability because it's non-criminal. The parent is obligated only to financially compensate the party harmed by his or her child's actions.
Parental civil liability is intended to compensate victims of torts (wrongful acts) and to encourage parental control and supervision. Parental civil liability generally begins when the minor is between eight and ten years old and ends at the age of majority, which is between 18 and 21, depending on state law. Compensation is normally limited to actual damages and court costs. In some states, parental liability can extend to attorney fees as well.
Parental civil liability stems from the theory of vicarious liability, a common law concept most often used in employment settings. Basically, a parent equates to a supervisor or person in charge of a child. When a child engages in willful misconduct or intentional acts, the parent can be held to account.
Vicarious liability means holding a more responsible person responsible for another's acts. Children cannot take responsibility for their own actions, so their parents must assume liability.
Some states, such as California, limit the monetary damages a plaintiff can recover against the parents of a child. Other state laws limit the child's age, whether the cause of action may include personal injury or other limitations.
Most cases of parental civil liability involve property damage by a child. All states provide laws holding parents responsible for children who engage in acts of vandalism or other property damage to another's property.
Vandalism normally refers to public property owned by the government or schools. It may refer to private property when the value of the damage runs high. Examples include graffiti, breaking out windows, damage caused by fires, keying a car, breaking a cell phone, or harming someone's pet.
States normally set a financial limit on the damages owed by a parent. For example, in California, a parent may be liable for up to $25,000 per incident. States may also require a certain level of intent by the child. In California, the parent will be liable for the child's willful misconduct. A negligent act or accident would not be sufficient. If the act involves defacement of property (e.g. graffiti), then the parent may be liable for $25,000 per incident, plus attorney fees and court costs.
In some cases, a parent may find themselves liable when a child causes personal harm to another person. This could result from a prank played on a neighbor that caused harm to a fight in the schoolyard.
States may also set financial and other limits on the damages owed by a parent for personal injury caused by a child.
For example, in Ohio, an injured party can sue a parent for up to $10,000 and costs. The injured party must demonstrate that the child willfully and maliciously assaulted the person by a means or force likely to produce great bodily harm.
In Michigan, the dollar limit on liability is lower, $2,500. But the injured party only needs to demonstrate that the child willfully caused bodily harm or injury to another.
Some states do not provide parental liability for personal injury claims. For example, Texas and Virginia do not cover personal injury under their parental liability statutes.
Motor vehicle accidents and use constitute a special concern when it comes to minors. Each state sets its own process for obtaining a driver's license. In some states, a child can begin with a learner's permit at 14 years of age. States may also have specific statutes related to liability in this area. These laws notify a parent or guardian who signs a license application for a minor child that they may be liable for negligent or willful acts by the child driver.
For example, in Florida, any negligence or willful misconduct of a minor under the age of 18 when driving will be imputed to the parent or guardian who signed the minor's driver's application or license. The Florida statute provides joint and several liability.
States also impose liability on parents who provide alcohol to minors in certain settings. Depending on the circumstances, this could be civil or criminal liability.
Outside of motor vehicles, most civil parental liability derives from a child's intentional acts. But there are times when a state imposes liability on a parent for negligent supervision of a child. This may also be called parental negligence. In these cases, the law provides liability to a parent when the parent had reason to know they needed to supervise the child and then did not take reasonable steps to do so.
Negligent supervision claims are tort claims. An injured party will allege that the parent had a duty of care and failed in that duty. As a result, the injured party suffered harm and should collect damages. There may or may not be a statute that defines this action or sets limitations on damages.
State civil liability laws can vary widely. Hawaii's parental liability law remains one of the most broadly applied, as it doesn't limit financial recovery, and it imposes liability for both negligent and intentional torts by the minor child. Parents are wise to learn the laws of their state.
Criminal Parental Liability
Parents are civilly liable for the criminal acts of their children. A criminal act differs from a civil act because a criminal act involves willful misconduct. For instance, if a child runs past a building and knocks over a paint can, it is negligence. If the child picks up the paint can and throws it against the wall, it becomes vandalism, a crime.
In general, parents are not tried for crimes their children commit. Parents are not charged with vandalism if a child vandalizes a building. Criminal liability is the same as civil liability: Parents must pay for the damage done by the child.
Parents are not charged for their children's acts because they did not commit the crime. U.S. criminal law does not prosecute individuals for crimes they did not commit. An exception is when they did something to contribute to the commission of the crime or encouraged the criminal in their actions.
Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor
Colorado was the first state to enact laws prohibiting contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Other states soon followed. These laws differ from parental liability. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor (CDM) is an act or omission by an adult that causes or tends to cause delinquent behavior in a minor.
An example is a parent who hosts a keg party for their underage children or provides their children with marijuana, even in states where it is legal. Some states have exceptions for specific situations involving alcohol, particularly on private premises or for religious purposes.
Criminal Charges for Parents
Parents may face criminal charges for their children's acts in a few specific circumstances. Many states now have laws fining or jailing parents when their children are habitually truant. These states see truancy as a sign of parental negligence, and fines of up to $1000 per incident or 24 hours in jail are typical sentences.
The rise in firearms-related crimes in schools has led to firearm access laws. Parents can be criminally charged for leaving firearms unsecured with a child in the home. The strictest of these laws make it a crime to have a gun where a child could find the weapon. Some states require actual use and serious injury before the parents face criminal charges.
Internet crimes have been a problem for the legal system because technology changes faster than the government can pass laws. Children often understand the internet better than their parents or law enforcement, so parents may be unwitting accessories to their children's internet crimes. Parental rights do not end at the child's door or the computer terminal.
Cyberbullying and stalking are crimes online as much as in the real world. Parents have faced criminal charges for assisting or encouraging their children in this behavior.
Consequences of Parental Liability
Parents can suffer other consequences as a result of their child's actions. Parental responsibility laws vary from state to state, so parents should know what their children are doing. Besides civil liability and criminal charges, parents could face other consequences for their children's actions.
Homeowner's or renter's insurance includes both property and liability coverage. Insurance may cover a child's wrongful acts even if the act takes place outside of your home. Like car insurance, negligence resulting in serious injury may affect your rates.
If a minor commits drug-related offenses, their family living in Section 8 housing could risk losing their home. Even if you are not charged with CDM and had no idea anything was going on, federal housing policies allow landlords to evict the whole family.
Child custody and family courts look very closely at allegations of parental negligence. The child's best interest always takes precedence over your rights. If the court has reason to believe that one parent is encouraging a child to misbehave or overlooking the child's poor behavior, child custody becomes difficult to get or retain.
A Special Word About Bullying and Hate Crimes
Childhood bullying and peer pressure are not new. Unfortunately, the advent of the internet and social media provided new tools for wayward young people to cause harm. Using a computer or internet device to spout hate or threaten or pressure others can destroy lives. It may also lead to civil or criminal consequences for the child and the child's parents.
Parents should not be naive. They should educate themselves on the dangers facing their children. They should also take steps to monitor their children's online presence and behavior. You can learn more about cyberbullying and takes steps to make sure it doesn't happen to your child.
Have More Questions? Seek Legal Help.
Parents who have general questions on parental liability issues can seek advice from an experienced family law attorney. A lawyer can help you understand the specific laws in your state and how they may apply to a situation that concerns you.
If you or someone you love has been harmed by a minor child, then you may want to consult with a personal injury attorney. A personal injury lawyer can discuss your situation and help you decide next steps. They can advise whether parental liability applies to your case.