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Am I Liable if My Kid Gets in Trouble on a Spring Break Trip?

By Steven Ellison, Esq. | Last updated on

Spring break is an annual rite of passage for many college and high school students needing to unwind during the school year. About 1.5 million students will spend their week traveling to popular seaside locations like Cancun, Panama City, and South Padre Island, where they will bask in the sun, frolic in the water, and, statistics show, consume copious amounts of alcohol.

Alcohol goes hand in hand with poor choices. Many parents will learn of the consequences of those choices by scrolling through their kids’ Instagram accounts. Others will hear about them when their kid confesses that they did something stupid. And some will learn about it when they get a call home from their child, who is sitting in the local police station in handcuffs.

A parent’s first instinct will be to ensure that everyone’s okay. It’s only later that they’ll wonder if they might be on the hook for what their underage kid did.

It may come as a surprise, but in many cases, they are.

Civil Liability

It used to be the law that parents generally were not liable for the acts of their minor children (in most states, that's children under the age of 18) solely because of that relationship. In other words, the parents did not owe someone injured by their child a duty of care. Parents could only be held liable for something their kid did if the injured party could show that the parents themselves were somehow directly responsible, such as by virtue of negligent supervision.

Willful or Malicious Conduct

But virtually every state has modified this common law rule. In most states, a parent bears legal responsibility for their child’s “willful” or “malicious” conduct. This essentially means that if their kid does something wrong deliberately, then the parent can get tagged for any property damage. Although this gets tricky when dealing with drunk people, many courts have ruled that misconduct while drunk is “willful.” These courts reason that it’s better for the parents to be responsible than for an innocent victim to bear a loss.

Most, but not all, of these states limit the parent’s liability. For example, Texas  — a popular spring break destination — caps parental liability in many instances for willful or malicious conduct to $25,000. So does California. Except for car accidents, Florida caps willful or malicious conduct liability to actual damages plus court costs.

Exceptions

There are a few “exceptions.” First, there are states that do not limit parental responsibility for their child’s misconduct at all. Hawaii, a popular vacation destination (if not really a spring break go-to), will hold parents fully accountable in civil court for their child’s actions.

A second involves driving. Many states, like Florida, impose unlimited liability on parents if a minor child behind the wheel causes a motor vehicle accident. Some states, such as California, accomplish this by requiring parents to sign their child’s driver’s license application and essentially vouch for them. The rationale once again is that an innocent victim shouldn’t have to bear the loss of personal injuries caused by someone’s kid, who probably doesn’t have the assets to compensate the victim. So the law looks to the parents to reimburse them.

Some states have additional exceptions for “dangerous instrumentalities,” dangerous conditions, and other inherently dangerous behavior. These exceptions might cover, for example, gang-related activity and incidents involving firearms.

Notify Your Insurance Company

If you get a call from a personal injury attorney threatening to bring a personal injury lawsuit against you, you should notify your auto, homeowner’s, or renter’s insurance company. Your insurance carrier will negotiate with the personal injury lawyer on your behalf and, if necessary, help you form an attorney-client relationship with a defense attorney. They will give you legal advice and help you understand your legal rights and options.

Criminal Liability

If that weren’t enough to deter a parent from funding their kid’s spring break excursion, the prospect of facing criminal liability for their conduct might be.

Most states have enacted what are called “parental responsibility laws.” These laws are based on the assumption that if a kid commits a crime, it’s because their parent didn’t exercise sufficient control and oversight. The parent isn’t charged with the crime their kid committed; rather, they are charged with failing to exercise proper control. These laws have been on the books for more than 100 years and are regularly enforced.

When they wish their spring breaker goodbye, parents should remember that underage drinking is a crime. So is driving while under the influence. Either of these alcohol-related crimes could theoretically result in a parent being charged with violating a parental responsibility law. You might be surprised to land in Tampa only to find there is a warrant out for your arrest because your spring breaker was charged with underage drinking and chose not to tell you about it.

A separate possible basis for parental criminal liability is contributing to the delinquency of a minor. These laws are premised on the parents actually enabling their child’s misconduct such as, for example, when parents give their underage child alcohol. We couldn’t find any cases on it, but a creative prosecutor might try to indict a parent who funds an underage spring breaker’s trip to a party town knowing that there will be a lot of drinking.

Bon Voyage!

We’re not saying parents should forbid their kids from going on spring break. Far from it. But we are saying that you should be aware that if something bad happens, you might be on the hook, both civilly and criminally. So before you buy their ticket, make sure your child understands the potential consequences of their choices while away. Then cross your fingers and pray!

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