Parental Responsibility and Liability Laws

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 What Are Parental Responsibility and Liability Laws?

Parental responsibility and liability mean that parents are legally responsible for their children’s actions. Legally liable parents can be prosecuted or sued. There are two categories of acts by children for which parents can be sued:

  • Torts
  • Illegal crimes

Minor children are usually subject to parental liability. The child’s parental liability ends when they reach the age of majority, which is usually 18. Some states have raised the age of majority to 21 for certain acts.

Although it may seem unfair that a parent could be responsible for a child’s actions, state legislatures have decided that an innocent victim should not have to pay for property damage or medical expenses that result from another person’s actions.

According to such laws, parents have a legal obligation to supervise their minor children. If they fail to do so and the child ends up causing harm to someone else or to property, the parent is responsible (usually financially).

How Old Must the Child Be?

A minor is a person who has not yet reached the age of majority. The age when a child becomes an adult legally varies from state to state, but in most states, the age is 18. In most states with parental responsibility laws, parents are only liable for the acts of their children until the child reaches the age of 18. Some states, however, have expanded parental responsibility to include children up to 21 years of age.

Examples of Parental Responsibility Laws

The laws governing parental responsibility vary widely from state to state, but here are a few examples:

  • California: Parents can be held responsible for any “willful misconduct causing injury, death or property damage” by a minor under the age of 18. In addition, parents may be liable for damages caused by their child’s negligent acts while operating an automobile with their consent. Parents can be held responsible for up to $25,000 of another’s medical expenses. This limit also applies to property damage.
  • Illinois: Parents may be liable for a child’s willful or malicious property damage or acts causing personal injury. Parents are also responsible for a child’s damage to any religious structure, such as a church, synagogue, mosque, or cemetery. In any single incident, a parent can be liable for up to $20,000.
  • Louisiana: Parents are liable for any damage caused by a child. A parent’s financial exposure is unlimited.
  • Maine: Parents are liable only for a child’s willful or malicious damage to a person or property. A parent’s financial exposure is limited to $800, regardless of the actual loss.
  • New Jersey: Parents may be liable for a child’s acts, but only for damage to railroads, public utilities, or school property. When this occurs, a parent’s financial responsibility is limited to $5,000.

Liability of Parents for a Child’s Actions in a Motor Vehicle

Some states have passed parental liability laws, which make a parent responsible for any injuries or vehicle damage caused by a minor child. However, many states also have specific statutes defining a parent’s or another adult’s legal responsibility in such circumstances. These statutes are called “sponsorship laws.”

Anyone under the age of 18 in those states must have a “sponsor” in order to obtain a driver’s license. Sponsors are usually parents but can also be employers or other adults. Any damages resulting from negligent behavior or willful misconduct by the minor while driving a car can be imputed to the adult sponsor. This holds true even if the sponsor had no control over the minor and did not own the vehicle.

What Is Civil Parental Liability?

In all 50 states, parents are responsible for all malicious or willful property damage caused by their children. A parent is only required to compensate the party harmed by their child financially.

Parents may be sued if their child commits malicious acts or damages property. Parents may be held responsible for their children’s actions, even if they are not responsible for the injury. This is commonly referred to as vicarious liability.

Most civil lawsuits filed against parents for their child’s misbehavior seek financial compensation. The following are common acts committed by minors in these cases:

  • Vandalism against the government or school property
  • Hate crimes that involve the destruction of property
  • Defacing cemetery headstones, historical markers, or public monuments

In most cases, parents are held liable for these crimes for two reasons:

  • Negligent Supervision: This assumes that the parents were aware of the child’s behavior and did nothing to prevent it. Negligent supervision applies to all adults that have custody of the child, such as grandparents or guardians.
  • The “Family Car” Doctrine: According to this doctrine, the car’s owner is responsible for any damage caused by a family member. The concept falls under the theory of negligent entrustment and is applied to about half of the states.

What Is Criminal Parental Liability?

Criminal parental liability is similar to civil parental liability but covers serious acts that are in violation of criminal laws. Criminal parental liability is typically linked to:

  • Delinquency: Minors that fail to attend or skip school.
  • Internet and Computer Crimes: Minors that hack phone company lines or illegally download music or movies.
  • Firearm Access: Minors who gain access to firearms and use them to commit crimes.

Criminal liability laws make parents liable for the delinquent acts of their children. Colorado was the first state to enact a law against contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 1903.

Now, most states and the District of Columbia have laws against contributing to the delinquency of minors. While the laws vary from state to state, parents who are found to be grossly negligent of the normal standards of parental supervision and control can generally be jailed, fined, and ordered by the court to pay restitution to the person their child harmed.

Laws governing firearm access and Internet crime are examples of criminal liability. The District of Columbia and a number of states have child firearm access prevention laws, which usually prohibit parents from leaving firearms within reach of their children. Parents have been held civilly responsible for their child’s online crimes in Internet access and computer hacking cases.

Which States Have Parental Liability Laws?

The majority of states have some form of parental liability law. Here are a few states with more detailed laws:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

How an Attorney Can Help You

There are times when an experienced attorney is worth the cost of their representation. A lawyer can help you navigate the complex legal rules involved in your particular parental liability lawsuit. The specific type of conduct that will trigger parental liability varies on a state-by-state basis, as does the extent of a parent’s financial exposure. These are civil statutes that can hold parents or guardians financially responsible when their minor children commit certain acts. Get in touch with an attorney in your area today.

A personal injury attorney could help you if your minor child committed a tort for which you may be held liable. Cases involving minors can be complex and have long-term consequences. An attorney can represent you in court and assist you throughout the process.

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