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Are Parents Liable for Their Child's Gun Violence?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

When 18-year-old Payton Gendron allegedly opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket in 2022, he struck Zaire Goodman in the neck. Fortunately, Goodman survived.

Gendron now faces 25 criminal charges, including hate-motivated domestic terrorism, first-degree murder, attempted murder, and murder as a hate crime. He pleaded not guilty.

However, Goodman also wants to hold Gendron’s parents accountable. Goodman’s lawyer recently petitioned the court to provide depositions and preserve testimony for a civil lawsuit. He alleges that parents Paul and Pamela Gendron ignored warning signs and were “willfully blind to their son’s propensity for vicious conduct.”

Parents Can Be Held Liable

Parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, the student responsible for a mass shooting at Oxford, Michigan, high school, are on trial for involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors point out that Ethan’s parents not only gave him a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol as a present, but they also ignored many warning signs of Ethan’s intent for violence.

A Michigan court just found Ethan’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, guilty of four counts of manslaughter (one for each victim of the school shooting) for her responsibility for the violence. This conviction may be the first where a parent is held liable for the acts of a child’s role in a school shooting.

What Can a Parent Be Liable For?

Parental liability covers the civil and criminal acts of their children. In civil lawsuits, they compensate the plaintiff with monetary damages. For criminal acts, parents may pay fines to the state or face stiffer criminal penalties.

For example, if your child drives your car into your neighbor’s house, you may be liable for the damage to the home. However, some states limit the amount of property damage a parent must pay.

Now, suppose your child drives your car into your neighbor. You might be criminally liable for your neighbor’s injury or death under involuntary manslaughter laws if you left the keys in the vehicle with the engine running.

Civil Liability: Negligence

In civil actions, such as willful and malicious property damage, a parent may have to pay for the damage caused by their child. In the case of the Buffalo shooting, Goodman’s attorney must prove that Gendron’s parents were negligent.

There are four factors for a negligence lawsuit to succeed: duty, breach, causation, and damages. He may argue:

  • Duty: The parents owed Goodman a legal duty of care
  • Breach: The parents acted or failed to act in a certain way to breach that duty
  • Causation: Their action (or lack of action) caused Goodman’s injury
  • Damages: Goodman was injured by their action or inaction

Criminal Liability: Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is a charge of unintentionally killing someone by recklessness or criminal negligence. An example of involuntary manslaughter is if you killed someone when driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

There are three factors to prove criminal negligence:

  • Your actions caused the death of someone
  • The conduct was “inherently dangerous to others or done with reckless disregard for human life”
  • You knew or should have known your actions threatened the lives of others

In the Crumbley case, prosecutors argued that buying a firearm for a 15-year-old (which is against Michigan law) and otherwise ignoring or endorsing disturbing events amount to reckless disregard for human life.

Criminal Liability: Child Access Prevention Laws

According to the Giffords Law Center, “Studies show that between 70 and 90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children, and school shootings perpetrated by shooters under the age of 18 are acquired from the home or the homes of relatives or friends.”

Child Access Prevention Laws (CAPS) or “safety storage laws” hold gun owners liable for a child’s unsupervised access to guns. Currently, gun owners face criminal charges for the negligent storage of firearms where a child can gain access in 29 states and the District of Columbia. However, there are no federal laws requiring the safe storage of guns.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof for civil actions is the preponderance of the evidence, meaning Goodman’s attorney will need to prove that it was more likely than not that Gendron’s parents’ actions caused the shooting. For a criminal case, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because civil actions have a lower standard of proof, they are more likely to succeed than criminal actions. So even if you can’t make a criminal case, you can still prevail in a civil case.

Age of Majority

Generally, states hold parents responsible for their child’s actions until they reach the age of majority. In most states, that is 18 years of age. In New York, the age is 18, so Goodman’s attorney may have difficulty holding Gendron’s parents liable for his actions.

Within three weeks of the Buffalo shooting, New York passed broad gun control measures, including raising the age of semiautomatic gun ownership from 18 to 21. Congress is working on gun control and may pass new legislation. We will see if state or federal laws extend culpability to parents of minor children.

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