Generally speaking, a parent can not be automatically held liable for acts of their child. Whether or not a parent can be held liable when their child injures someone else typically depends on the state’s laws where the incident took place, the nature of the injury, and other factors. In the past, parents were not traditionally held liable for the acts of their children, as their children were seen as independent actors.
However, many states now have laws that allow parents to be held liable for the acts of their children either directly or indirectly. For example, there are numerous state laws that require parents to be financially responsible for the damage caused by their children at a minimum.
Therefore, if a parent’s child destroys someone else’s property or causes financial injury to another person, the parent will likely have to cover those financial damages.
It is important to note that parental liability may be extended to juvenile crimes, in addition to civil injuries and damages. Once again, whether or not a parent can be held liable for the criminal actions of their children will be dependent on the circumstances of the criminal act committed by the child, and the state’s laws regarding parental responsibility and accountability.
Can a Parent Be Held Liable for Civil Injuries Caused By Their Child?
As noted above, a parent is not automatically liable for injuries and damages caused by their child. However, many states do require parents to be financially responsible for the financial damages caused by their children. Typically, a parent may be held liable for damages caused by their child under the following situations:
- Failure to Supervise: If facts of the case demonstrate that the parent was negligent in failing to supervise their child, and that negligence led to the child taking actions that resulted in the injury, then the parent may be held liable for failure to supervise. Importantly, the injury caused must have been a foreseeable consequence of the parent’s failure to supervise their child. For example, if a parent left their child in the car in a parking lot with the car running, and the child put the car in reverse and injured another person or property, the parent may be held liable for those damages;
- Parental Negligence: Parental negligence differs slightly from failure to supervise in that the injured party must demonstrate that the parent knew their actions would likely result in damages. For example, if the child was 14 years of age, and the parent physically gave them the car keys to drive to a friend’s house by themself, they may be held liable for the damages based on their negligence. The negligence in this situation is that the 14 year old is unlicensed and incompetent in driving. Another example of this would be a parent lending their car to their teenage child, when the parent was aware that the teenage intended to use the vehicle to go drag racing on public city streets; and/or
- Family Purpose Doctrine: Continuing the above example, if the child was using the parent’s vehicle for a “family purpose” with the consent of the parent, such as going to get groceries, the parent may be held liable for the damages if the child gets into a wreck.
As can be seen, there are numerous ways in which a parent may be held civilly liable for the injuries or damages caused by their children. Thus, it is important to review your state laws, in order to determine what situations a parent may be held liable for the actions of their children.
What Is the Difference Between Vicarious and Direct Liability?
When it comes to determining parental liability, it is important to understand the differences between vicarious liability and direct liability. Vicarious liability means that a parent may be held for the actions of a subordinate. This includes a parent being held liable for the actions taken by their children, even if the parent did not give their child consent to perform such actions.
Situations in which parents may be held vicariously liable for their children’s actions, include but are not limited to:
- Agency Theory: The most common scenario in which a parent may be held vicariously liable is when their child commits a wrongful act while following directions from their parent;
- Family Car Doctrine: Many states have adopted laws that address vicarious liability for parents who own a vehicle and entrust that vehicle to a child. Parents will thus be held vicariously liable for their child’s wrongful conduct when the child drives under the parent’s express or implied consent; and
- Permissive Use Doctrine: In a few states, an automobile owner is vicariously liable for anyone’s tortious conduct when their car is operated with the owner’s consent. Under this theory, an owner-parent may be held liable for a child’s wrongful driving, even if the parent is not directly related to the child.
Many of the state laws that address parental liability specify that parents have a duty to control their minor children and may be directly liable for breaching their duties to supervise and control their child. Direct liability means that an individual is only held liable for their own actions. This means that if a parent entrusts a child with an instrument that could reasonably cause a risk of harm to others, such as a weapon, then the parent will be liable for any harm that results.
Importantly, the individual seeking damages against the parent will have to show that not only did the child act negligently, but that the parent was negligent by failing to supervise the child. Further, they will have to additionally demonstrate that if it was not for the parent’s failure to supervise the child, the injury would not have occurred.
When Can a Parent Be Held Liable for Criminal Actions of Their Children?
In addition to civil liability, parents may also be held liable for their juvenile child’s crimes. Once again, this will depend on the state’s laws in which the juvenile child’s criminal act occurred. Similar to civil liability, some states maintain Parental Accountability or Parental Responsibility Laws which hold parents responsible for criminal acts committed by their child. The reasoning behind such laws is similar to holding parents civilly liable; parents have a legal duty to supervise and prevent their children from performing criminal acts.
Another factor in many states for such laws is to decrease the juvenile crime rate in that state. For example, in California it is actually a misdemeanor for a parent to fail to exercise reasonable care over his or her child. If convicted, the parent themselves could face up to one year in prison, a $2,500 criminal fine, or a combination of both.
Are There Limits to Parental Liability?
As with most laws regarding parental liability, parental liability may be limited in most states, but it will be dependent on that specific state to enact such limits. For example, Iowa limits the amount of monetary damages that a parent can be held liable for to $2,000 per each act of their child. Additionally, many states also have an age cap in which a parent can be held liable for the actions of their child.
For example, if a four year old pulls a chair away from an individual that is about to sit down, and that person falls and injures their back, the parent may not be held liable for those damages. Once again, whether or not the parent would be held liable for the actions of the four year old would be dependent on that state’s laws. Further, if a child becomes emancipated in the state, then the parent would also likely not be held liable for that child’s actions.
Do I Need an Attorney for Issues Involving Parental Liability?
As can be seen, the laws surrounding parental responsibility for the acts of children vary drastically from state to state. Thus, if your child caused financial damages or injuries to another individual, it may be in your best interest to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney in your area. An experienced attorney will be aware of your state’s laws surrounding parental liability. An attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as necessary.
If your child has committed a criminal act, you should immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney will ensure you and your child’s rights are protected throughout the criminal legal process, and determine whether any legal defenses are available to you based on the specifics of the case.