Can I Sue Parents for Bullying?
Yes, you may be able to sue the parents of a minor who is bullying your child. Generally, a parent is responsible for their minor child's bullying if they are aware of it and have the chance to stop it. If they fail to do so and your child is hurt, physically or emotionally, you would be able to sue the parents under state law. This is on top of any claims you might want to bring against the school system.
Suing the parents poses some legal challenges. You would need to establish that they knew of the bullying, which requires you to prove what was in their heads (a difficult task). You would also need to consider the possibility of tagging their homeowner's insurance policy. A talented personal injury lawyer would be able to help navigate these issues of personal injury law, give you legal advice in an attorney-client relationship, and represent you if you decide to file a lawsuit.
Let's start with what bullying is. According to the Centers for Disease Control, bullying is any unwanted and repeated aggressive behavior that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance. Bullying may inflict physical, psychological, and emotional harm on the victim, particularly one with low self-esteem or with special needs.
Bullying typically takes the following forms:
- Physical bullying (e.g., hitting, kicking, etc.)
- Verbal bullying (e.g., teasing, name-calling, sexual harassment, taunting about sexual orientation, etc.)
- Social bullying (e.g., spreading rumors)
- Property damage
But much bullying today occurs online as cyberbullying. Social media is a bullying warzone, and children aren't shy about criticizing their classmates in text messages.
About 20% of students between the ages of 12 and 18 in public schools and private schools nationwide report having been bullied. Similarly, about 20% of high school students claim they were bullied on school property. Research suggests that persistent bullying can cause such students to feel despairing, isolated, rejected, and excluded, and it can lead to or worsen depression or anxiety. Although the vast majority of bullying victims do not become suicidal, depression has been associated with suicidality.
What Should You Do if Your Kid Is Bullied?
Historically, kids were encouraged to stand up to their bullies. If that meant you got into a physical fight, so be it. Kids generally were expected to sort things out on their own. In fact, if you told a parent or a teacher, you would be shunned as a tattletale.
Times have changed. Parents are more likely to get involved if they learn that their child is the victim of bullying behavior. The first target typically is the child's school. Teachers, staff members, and administrators are notified of the problem and held accountable by the parents if the school bullying doesn't stop. You could even file a civil rights lawsuit against school officials and the school district.
But if it's your kid being bullied, you shouldn't stop there. Assuming the aggressor is a minor, you want to make sure that you notify the bully's parents. The school should do it, but as you'll see below, giving the parents notice is necessary if you want to win a lawsuit against them. Something that important you might want to handle on your own.
To win that lawsuit, you need to be able to show that the parents did something wrong. A wrong you can sue for is called a “tort." The tort you would try to prove against the parents is negligence.
Negligence is the failure to use due care under the circumstances. To show negligence, you need to establish the following elements:
- Legal duty of care: you were in a legally recognized relationship with the person who hurt you
- Breach of duty: the person who hurt you failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances
- Causation: their failure to exercise reasonable care directly and foreseeably caused you harm
- Damages: the harm you sustained is provable and legally compensable (including emotional distress)
If you have evidence that supports the existence of each of these elements, you would be able to win a negligence lawsuit.
Parent's Duty to Control Children
Generally, a parent is under a duty to prevent minor children from intentionally or carelessly hurting others if the parent:
- Knows or has reason to know that they can control the child;
- Knows or should know of the need to exercise control; and
- Has the opportunity to exercise such control.
This is why notifying the parents is so important. If the parents don't know that their child is bullying another child, they cannot be held liable in many states for harm caused by the bullying.
Some states also have specific laws that apply to bullying cases. These states impose liability on the parents for “willful or malicious" misconduct by a minor child who lives with them that causes harm to another. These laws would hold the parents accountable regardless of notice but may limit the amount you can recover from the parents (the child would still be on the hook for the full amount, however).
There is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying. However, in some cases in which bullying is based on a legally protected classification (e.g., race, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, disability), the school is obligated to address it.
One reason many lawyers file bullying lawsuits against the school and school district is that they have “deep pockets." In other words, they have the money to pay a judgment against them (on top of a responsibility to ensure that the kids have a reasonably safe learning environment). Suing the parents, who may be perceived to have shallow pockets, may seem a waste of time and effort.
But it often isn't. Most people carry homeowner's or renter's insurance. These policies generally provide a minimum of $100,000 in coverage for negligence. Although the specific policy language will determine the scope of coverage, some policies may be broad enough to cover a lawsuit against the parents for their negligent failure to control their minor child. You may be able to recover even a substantial judgment against the parents of the bully.
A Personal Injury Attorney Could Help
No parent wants to sit by and do nothing while their child is being bullied. You can counsel, advise, and console your child all you want, but that won't make the bullying stop.
As a parent, you can expose the bully. Notify the teachers, trusted staff members, and the school counselor of the bullying incidents. And make sure you notify the bully's parents. If they have notice and opportunity, they are under a legal duty to make it stop. The threat of a lawsuit may be enough to get the parents to get their kid to stop bullying. That might be enough for you.
But it may not be. Bullying can cause a child extensive harm, physically and emotionally. Your child might need medical care to treat physical injuries and therapy to cope with the bullying. You shouldn't have to pay for that yourself. If your child is the victim of bullying, you may want to think about getting legal advice from a personal injury attorney about whether you should take legal action.
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