In most states, parents are civilly responsible for their child(ren)'s negligent, intentional or criminal actions. This liability extends to property damage as well as personal injury and does not end until the child(ren) reaches the statutory age of majority. Depending on the jurisdiction, this statutory age may be 18, 19 or 21. In many states, parents can be criminally liable if they contribute to the delinquency of their minors.
The doctrine that extends liability to parents for their children's criminal or tortious actions is similar to respondeat superior, also known as vicarious liability. This doctrine is often applied to negligence cases and allows plaintiffs to hold employers responsible for the direct negligence of their employees. The laws apply this doctrine to parents under the premise that, even in absentia, parents retain supervisory and legal control over their children (just as employers have supervisory and contractual control of their employees), even if this control is illusory.
The practical purpose of these vicarious liability laws is that damages must be paid, and parents (just as employers) have the deeper pockets. However, although some states hold parents financially responsible for damages caused by their children, the statutes often limit the amount of recoverable liability.
Parents are legally obligated to control their children and take requisite steps to maintain this control. If the parents fail in this duty of supervision, their failure rises to negligence. This theory applies not only to parents but to anyone with custodial control of a child, including grandparents, guardians and others who may have legal custody. This theory is mainly applicable under some insurance policies which offer adults protection against lawsuits based on negligent supervision. Under the family car doctrine, insurers extend liability to parents in cases where injuries are caused by minor children driving family cars if the parents knew or consented to the use of the car.
Some states impose penalties against parents of delinquent minors. However, other states such as Kansas and Texas only require that parents attend hearings when their children are adjudicated for their delinquency. If the parents do not attend these hearings, they can face contempt charges. Other states, such as Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia, force parents to pay court costs and other administrative costs while Florida, Idaho, North Carolina and Virginia force parents to reimburse the state for costs related to the care, support, and sometimes treatment of their minors while under the care of state agencies.
Some states hold parents criminally responsible for damages caused by their children's access to firearms. The penalties are enhanced if the access resulted in someone's injury or death and parents may even face felony charges. Exceptions are provided where children gain access to firearms by unlawful entry into their homes or where the children use the weapons in self defense.