8 Reasons You Can Legitimately Sue a Minor and Win
You can bring a civil case against a minor. If the minor is emancipated, you sue them in their own right. If the minor is not emancipated, you sue them through their legal representative. If they don't have a legal representative, a court can appoint one.
Depending on the nature of your claim and the age and maturity of the minor, you might recover less than what you might be able to get from an adult. You can sue the minor child's parents in some circumstances.
There are many claims you can bring against a minor and win. Whether it makes sense financially is a different story. This article addresses eight different scenarios.
What Is a Minor?
But first, a little background about what makes someone a minor. A minor is a person who is under the age of majority set by state law. In most states, it's 18. In Alabama and Nebraska, it's 19. In Mississippi, it's 21.
During the period of their minority, children are generally subject to their parents' authority as their legal guardians. Parents are responsible for, among other things, caring for and educating their minor children and generally have the right to make decisions relating to their child's well-being.
What Is Emancipation?
State laws allow minors to become independent from the legal authority of their parents. The legal term for this process is emancipation.
A minor can petition for a court order to free them from their parents' authority when they reach a certain age and maturity (16 in most places).
If emancipated, the minor has virtually the same legal rights and duties under state law as an adult.
For example, the minor can:
- Live where they want
- Get married without parental consent
- Agree to medical care and treatment
- Buy or sell real estate or personal property
- Enter into binding contracts
- Sue or be sued in their own name on their own behalf
A qualified family law attorney can help.
If you want to do this on your own, contact your local court clerk or visit the website of the clerk's office. The clerk's office typically has self-help resources and general information for most court processes.
Can You Sue a Minor?
At common law (law made through court decisions), minor children have the right to sue and be sued. But, they do not have the legal capacity to take part in litigation in their own names. During minority, they have to act in court through an adult.
Depending on where you are, that adult is a "next friend" or, if appointed by a court, a "guardian ad litem."
These terms used to differ depending on where you were and whether the minor was suing or being sued. Today, they serve essentially the same function. Their responsibility is to represent the child's best interests in the legal action. Although they may be the guardian ad litem in the lawsuit, the child is the real party in interest.
The Practical Problem With Suing A Minor
One of the reasons many people think you can't sue a minor is because virtually no one does it. That's because most kids are broke. There are exceptions, of course. But, as a practical matter, the child has nothing to pay you if you win. If you win a judgment against an adult, you can typically garnish their wages or bank account to pay the judgment. When you sue a minor, there may be no wages or bank account to garnish.
Suing the minor's parents is tough, too. Although state law differs, the general rule is that parents are not liable for the wrongs their minor children do unless the child engages in willful or wanton misconduct. Some states that allow parental liability for willful and wanton misconduct cap the amount of money and damages you can recover.
Some states allow you to recover more if your child causes a car accident, especially if the parents expressly authorized the driving. But, suing a child in most instances may not make financial sense.
But it's not always about the money. Sometimes it's the principle. So now, let's address eight situations in which you can legitimately sue a minor and might win.
1. You Can Sue a Minor for Defamation
Suppose a neighbor kid posts malicious lies about you on social media. You can sue them for defamation.
There are two types of defamation: Libel, which is written; and slander, which is spoken. Here, you would sue for libel.
2. You Can Sue a Minor for Causing Personal Injury
Suppose that same neighbor kid "accidentally" shoots you with a pellet gun while you are mowing your lawn. You can sue them for negligence. Like most personal injury lawsuits, the court may order them to pay your medical bills.
But the kid's liability depends on their age and relative maturity. Generally, the younger and more immature the child, the less likely a state will allow you to sue them in a civil action.
Even if state law allows you to sue a child, they have a different standard of care. Typically, the law requires adults to act reasonably prudent in the same or similar circumstances. In contrast, children must act as reasonably prudent children in the same or similar circumstances, which compares the child to other children of the same age and maturity level.
Your state may have an exception if the child engages in an “adult activity," like driving a car. The child is held to the same standard as an adult in such cases. A personal injury attorney can give more information about your legal rights in this case.
3. You Can Sue a Minor for Assault or Battery
Suppose you can show that the "accident" wasn't really an accident. You could sue the minor for assault (intentionally causing someone fear of imminent, unwanted physical contact) and battery (intentionally causing someone unwanted physical contact).
4. You Can Sue a Minor for Copyright Violation
Suppose you have been working hard on a book about pesky neighbor kids and, having finally finished it, email it to your publisher.
Then, the neighbor kid hacks into your email, steals your book, and posts it online. You can sue them for civil copyright violations under federal law.
5. You Can Sue a Minor for Causing Property Damage
Suppose the neighbor kid eggs — really, enthusiastically eggs — your house. You don't discover it until morning, so the eggs have all dried. It costs a couple hundred dollars to clean, and you have to repaint the house. You can sue the kid for the damage.
6. You Can Sue a Minor for Trespass
Suppose that darn neighbor kid now won't get off your lawn. No matter how much you stand on your porch in your black, knee-high socks and yell at them, they just stand there on your grass, juggling eggs and laughing at you. You can sue the kid for trespass.
7. You Can Sue a Minor for Breach of Contract
Suppose you decide that you have had enough and want to move. Suppose, ironically, it's the neighbor kid — who perhaps unsurprisingly happens to have a trust fund — who puts up the best offer on your house. After you both sign the contract, the neighbor kid refuses to pay you for your house. Luckily, you are able to sell your place to one of the lower bidders. You can file suit against the minor for breach of contract.
But there is a significant problem for you here. That problem is that in most states, minors can disavow — essentially get out of — virtually all contracts if they do so by the age of majority.
An exception lies in contracts for necessities of life, such as food, which wouldn't apply here. So, for this claim, you would be hard-pressed to win.
8. You Can Sue a Minor for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Finally, you have had enough. The contract fiasco was the last straw. This kid has driven you crazy, and your therapist will back you up. You can sue the kid for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If You Are Thinking About Suing a Minor, Consider Contacting a Lawyer
You may have a better chance of recovering money from the neighbor kid's parent for negligent supervision. But depending on the state and the nature of the claim, you may be able to recover money from the kid (and it may make financial sense if an insurance policy covers them).
If you do decide to sue a kid for money, you may consider bringing a claim by yourself in small claims court for a small filing fee. If the principle is important to you and you want to know your legal rights, you may want to speak with a lawyer who works in the correct practice area. An attorney can give you important legal advice before you file your case. Many will offer a free initial consultation, and you will get a better understanding of your legal rights. Anything you say to the attorney may be protected by the attorney-client relationship. You may also recover other relief, such as a harassment restraining order.
Suing a Minor Before Time Runs Out
Except for the federal copyright claim, each claim we discuss here is subject to the state's statute of limitations.
That means you have a limited amount of time in which to bring your legal claim. So, if you are considering a lawsuit against a minor child, you should speak with a local lawyer promptly.