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Parental Responsibility Laws in a Civil Claim

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What are “Parental Responsibility Laws”?

Parental responsibility laws hold a parent legally responsible for violations committed by their children.  This might mean that the parent will be held financially liable for property damage or other losses caused by their child.  In most states, the age of majority is 18 years old, though it may be anywhere from 19-21 years old in some areas.    

Parental liability is similar to the concept of vicarious liability, wherein an employer is responsible for negligent or harmful acts committed by their employees.  The laws governing parental liability for the acts of children may be different in each state, and some jurisdictions may limit the amount of liability for parents. 

What types of Acts do Parental Responsibility Laws cover?

Parental responsibility laws may cover any civil violations committed by a minor.  These may include personal injury torts, property damage, or thefts.  Most state statutes dealing with parental liability directly address property damage.  Some common instances where a parent may be held liable for civil violations committed by their child may include:

  • Defacement or destruction of government property, especially monuments
  • Vandalism to school property
  • Destruction of property that is motivated by a hate crime, such as defacing a church, synagogue, or temple

What are the Consequences for the Parent?

Depending on the act committed by the minor, the parent may have to face legal consequences.  In the majority of instances, the consequences may require the parent to pay a damages award to the plaintiff to reimburse them for economic losses caused by the child.  These may cover hospital expenses, medical treatment, and property damage costs. 

In many jurisdictions, the parent may also be required to reimburse the state for any losses connected with the juvenile violation.  For example, the parent may have to pay for the cost of court fees associated with the violation.  In many instances the parent and child may also face separate criminal charges.

What types of Legal Theories are involved with Parental Liability claims?

Most parental liability laws are based on statutes that define the parent’s liability.  In many cases legal theories are also based on common law (case law) principles such as:

  • Vicarious liability:  Parental responsibility or liability for a personal injury violation or civil violation may be based on liability principles similar to those between an employer and employee
  • Parental Negligence or Negligent Supervision:  A parent may become liable for the child’s acts if the parent knows that the child needs to be controlled, but fails to take reasonable precautions to control them.  Negligent supervision can also apply to other adults such as legal guardians, grandparents, close relatives, or others who have authority over the child.  Negligent supervision usually involves failure to restrict access to dangerous items such as firearms
  • “Family Car Doctrine”: About half of the U.S. states enforce this doctrine, which holds the owner of a car liable for damage caused by another family member while driving (including minors).  In order to be held liable, the owner of the car must consent to the other person’s use.  The family car doctrine usually applies regardless of whether the minor was included in a family insurance policy

Parental liability can also be based on a combination of these legal theories.  Be sure to consult with a lawyer if you need clarification on your state’s laws.

Do I need to hire a Lawyer for Parental Responsibility in a Civil Claim?

Parental responsibility laws can place heavy burdens on a parent or guardian.  It can often be difficult to determine the exact amount of liability for each person involved.  You may wish to consult with an experienced lawyer if you need advice or representation in a civil lawsuit.  An attorney in your area can determine if you have any legal defenses in your favor. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 06-03-2015 11:38 AM PDT

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