Parental Responsibility for Children’s Actions in Washington

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 What is Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility is where parents or guardians are held financially responsible for their children’s actions.

Can a Parent Be Held Liable for the Acts of Their Children?

In general, parents are not automatically liable for their children’s actions. It depends on the state’s laws where the incident occurred, the nature of the injury, and other factors whether a parent can be held liable if their child injures someone else. As children were seen as independent actors in the past, parents were not traditionally held liable for their children’s actions.

However, many states now allow parents to be held liable either directly or indirectly for the actions of their children. For example, numerous state laws 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 harm to someone else, the parent is likely to be responsible for those financial damages.

In addition to civil injuries and damages, parental liability can extend to juvenile crimes. A parent’s liability for the criminal acts of their children will depend on the circumstances of the criminal act and the state’s laws regarding parental responsibility and accountability.

Can a Parent Be Held Liable for Civil Injuries Caused By Their Child?

It has been noted above that a parent is not automatically liable for injuries and damages caused by their child. In many states, parents are financially responsible for the financial damages caused by their children. The following situations typically make parents liable for damages caused by their children:

  1. 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. The injury caused by the parent’s failure to supervise their child must have been foreseeable. Suppose 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;
  2. 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. If a parent gave their 14-year-old child the keys to a car to drive to a friend’s house alone, they might be held liable for the damages. It is negligent in this case that the 14-year-old is unlicensed and incompetent to drive. An example of this would be a parent lending their car to their teenage child, knowing that the teenager intended to drag race on city streets; or
  3. Family Purpose Doctrine: Continuing the above example, if the child was using the parent’s vehicle for a “family purpose” with the parent’s consent, such as going to get groceries, the parent may be held liable for the damages if the child gets into a wreck.

A parent may be held civilly liable for the injuries or damages caused by their children in numerous ways, as can be seen from the above list. You should review your state’s laws to determine what situations a parent may be held liable for their children’s actions.

What Is the Difference Between Vicarious and Direct Liability?

When determining parental liability, you should understand the difference between vicarious and direct liability. A parent may be held liable for the actions of a subordinate through vicarious liability. Parents are liable for the actions of their children even if they did not give them consent.

Parents may be held vicariously liable for their children’s actions in the following situations:

  • 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.

In many state laws dealing with parental liability, parents are directly liable if they breach their duty to supervise and control their minor children. Individuals are only held responsible for their own actions under direct liability. Parents will be liable for any harm caused to their children if they entrust them with instruments that could reasonably cause harm to others, such as weapons.

Moreover, the individual seeking damages will have to demonstrate that not only did the child act negligently but that the parent failed to supervise the child. Additionally, they must demonstrate that the injury would not have occurred if the parent had supervised the child.

When Can a Parent Be Held Liable for Criminal Actions of Their Children?

Besides civil liability, parents may also be held liable for their juvenile child’s crimes. This will depend on the state’s laws in which the juvenile child committed the crime. Parents can be held liable for criminal acts committed by their children under Parental Accountability or Parental Responsibility Laws, similar to civil liability laws. Such laws are similar to holding parents civilly liable; parents have a legal duty to supervise and prevent their children from committing crimes.

Many states have passed such laws in order to decrease the juvenile crime rate. For example, in some states, it is actually a misdemeanor for a parent to fail to exercise reasonable care over their child. If convicted, the parent themselves could face up to one year in prison, a $2,500 criminal fine, or a combination of both.

How Does Washington Law Apply?

In Washington, parents are held responsible if their children are under 18 years of age and their children live with them. The children must have also acted willfully or maliciously.

Therefore, Washington civil law does not hold parents responsible if their children cause injury to another negligently or carelessly.

Is There a Limit on Liability?

Yes. Regardless of the amount of damage, parents are only liable for $5,000 of property damage. You will only have to pay $5,000 if your child wrecks the victim’s $30,000 car in a car accident.

Will I Still Be Liable under Common Law?

Unfortunately, yes. Even if you are not liable under Washington civil law, the claimant may bring a common law action against you. You would be liable if you knew your children were likely to harm others or knew about their plans to harm others and did nothing to prevent or supervise them.

Contacting an Attorney

If your child is involved in a personal injury suit, it is best to consult an experienced Washington personal injury lawyer to limit or shield your own parental responsibility liability. The lawyer will help you in all of your court proceedings and assess your case.

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