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8 Reasons You Can Legitimately Sue a Minor and Win

Little child boy hungry waiting for dinner in restaurant. Holding fork and knife

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 relative maturity of the minor, you might recover less than what you might be able to get from an adult. You may be able, however, to 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. Nonetheless, we address eight different scenarios below.

What Is a Minor?

But first, a little background about minority and 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 years of age. 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.

In some situations, a court might appoint a legal guardian for a child (often in connection with custody disputes).

What Is Emancipation?

At a certain age, state law permits minors to be released from the legal authority of their parents. The legal term for this process is “emancipation."

In general, a minor can petition for a court order to free them from their parent's authority when they reach a certain age and maturity (16 in most places). This is done through the emancipation process.

If emancipated, the minor has virtually the same legal rights and duties under state law as an adult does.

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

For further information about emancipation, please see our more detailed discussion here. A qualified family law attorney can also help.

If you want to try to do this on your own, contact your local court clerk or visit the website of the clerk's office.

Can You Sue a Minor?

At common law (law made through court decisions), minor children have the right to sue and be sued. They do not possess the legal capacity, however, to participate in litigation in their own names. Unless emancipated, during minority they have to act in court through an adult.

Depending on where you are, that adult is known as a “next friend" or, if appointed as such by a court, a “guardian ad litem."

These terms used to be different depending on where you were and whether the minor was suing or being sued, but today they serve essentially the same function. Their responsibility is to represent the child's best interests in the litigation. Although they may be named as the "next friend" or "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 cannot sue a minor is because virtually no one does it. That's because most kids — not all, but most — are broke. In some states, there are exceptions, but as a practical matter, the child has nothing to pay you if you win.

Suing their parents is tough, too. Although state law differs, the general rule is that unless the child engages in willful or wanton misconduct, parents are not liable for the wrongs their minor children do. And some of those states that do allow parental liability for willful and wanton misconduct cap the amount of damages you can recover.

Some states will allow you to recover more if your child causes a car accident, especially if the parents expressly authorized the driving. In most instances, however, suing a child 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

But the kid's liability depends on their age and relative maturity. Generally speaking, the younger and more immature the child, the less likely a state will allow you to sue them for negligence.

Even if state law allows you to sue a child, they are generally held to a different standard of care. Generally, the law requires adults to act as reasonably prudent persons in the same or similar circumstances. In contrast, children are required to 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.

There may be an exception in your state if the child engages in an “adult activity," like driving a car. In such cases, the child is held to the same standard as an adult.

3. You Can Sue a Minor for Assault or Battery

But suppose you are able to show that that “accident" really wasn't an accident. You would be able to sue 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 some areas need to be repainted. You can sue the kid for the damage. We discuss property damage lawsuits here.

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 sue the minor for breach of contract.

But there is a major 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 for 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. We discuss the tort (civil wrong) of intentional infliction of emotional distress here.

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 they are covered by an insurance policy).

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 all of your legal rights, you may want to speak with a lawyer who works in the correct practice area. Many will offer a free initial consultation, and, at the least, you will get a better understanding of what your legal rights are. You also may be able to recover other relief, such as a harassment restraining order.

Suing a Minor Before Time Runs Out

Note that with the exception of the federal copyright claim (as to which you have three years in which you knew or should have known of the potential infringement to sue), each claim we discuss here would be based on your 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 thinking about a lawsuit against a minor child, you would want to speak with a local lawyer promptly.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.

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