Parents' Civil Liability for a Child's Acts

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

From Brian Wilson's "Little Deuce Coupe" to the Boss's "Pink Cadillac," teenagers and automobiles have always gone together like Prince and platform shoes. Once those teenagers grow up and become parents, they find that the iconic American pairing of kids and cars can lead to a lot of heartache, including lawsuits. Yes, Mom and Dad, you can be held liable when your baby girl decides to ride, Sally, ride.

This article discusses parents' civil liability for the acts of their children. For a discussion of parental liability for children's crimes, see Parental Responsibility for a Child's Criminal Actions.

Purpose of Civil Liability Laws in General

A civil wrong, or "tort," is created by a law that places responsibility for one person's injury or property damage onto the person who caused the injury or harm. The purpose of such laws is, in short, to make sure that victims are not left to bear the financial brunt of injuries caused by others. The basic idea is to shift that burden to the person responsible for the victim's injury.

Parental Liability Laws

Historically, under English and U.S. common law, parents were not liable for their children's torts just based on the parent/child relationship alone. Some participation by the parent in the civil wrong was necessary to hold parents liable. The participation could include encouraging or condoning a child's misconduct, directing a child to engage in the conduct that caused the injury, or turning a blind eye to a child's obviously dangerous conduct. However, the law, like so much in society, changed once the automobile and automotive injuries became commonplace.

Daddy didn't take the T-Bird away: How the car changed the law

A joy-riding teenager who recklessly smashed into someone committed a tort under common law, but his parents would not have been held liable if they had no reason to know he would be driving negligently. But that left the injured people without a source of compensation for their losses.

In response to injured parties having to confront "judgment-proof" teens, states enacted a slew of parental liability laws. More recently, injuries caused by children with unsupervised access to firearms and other, similar high-profile incidents have renewed interest in holding parents accountable for their children's conduct. Now, all 50 states have some type of law that holds parents liable for damage caused by the conduct of their children. Under many of these laws, a parent's lack of knowledge of the child's conduct is irrelevant, and the parent is liable for damages caused by the child's negligent or wrongful actions. This is a form of what is known as "vicarious liability."

Vicarious liability of parents for children's torts

Unlike criminal law, vicarious liability may be imposed in cases involving civil wrongs for acts done by others without proof of bad intent on the part of the individual held liable. The justification for this doctrine is that society benefits by transferring the burden of a loss or injury to the person best able to bear it. In the case of parents' liability for the harmful acts of their children, parents are in a far better position to deal with the damage done than the children themselves, who usually have very limited individual resources to compensate someone they have injured.

Legislating Parental Duty to Control and Supervise Children

Some parents who have been sued under parental responsibility laws have argued that the laws interfere with their right to parent as they see fit, because in the course of defining poor parental supervision, the laws necessarily define what is a "good" parent. While parents have a fundamental right to rear their children, as the Supreme Court has recognized, that right comes with the duty to exercise reasonable supervision and control over their children. Courts have routinely held that states have a compelling interest in promoting the public welfare by holding parents accountable when they fail to fulfill that duty. This is the basis upon which courts uphold parental responsibility laws.

Purpose: Compensate victims

Under parental responsibility laws, parents can be ordered to pay damage awards to the people harmed by their children's actions. This financial burden is imposed on them because lawmakers recognize that the children who caused the harm cannot compensate the victims.

Purpose: Encourage parental control

Although the usual purpose of vicarious liability is to ensure compensation for a victim injured by another's conduct, parental responsibility laws have another, perhaps greater, goal: to spur parents to properly supervise and control their children. This goal is apparent when a law includes a cap on the award that a plaintiff may recover from the parent of a child who has injured them or damaged their property, because the cap indicates that compensation to the victim is not the motivation for the legislation.

Damage Award Upheld By Georgia Supreme Court

Two 15-year-old boys broke into a house, causing property damage. Under Georgia tort law, a victim could sue the parent of a child who committed a willful act against the victim, such as vandalism, for an award of up to $500. The homeowner sued the boys' parents under that law and won $500 from each boy's parents. The parents appealed, arguing that they were denied due process because the statute penalized them for the acts of others. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the parents' argument, finding that Georgia had a legitimate interest in preventing vandalism and that the statute was designed to serve that interest because the capped damages would encourage parental supervision. It upheld the judgment against the parents. (Hayward v. Ramick, 285 S.E.2d 697 (1982).)

Negligence per se

Where a state has a parental responsibility law that makes it a crime for a parent to fail to prevent a minor from committing a crime, a parent convicted under such a law may also confront a civil action by the victim. In that action, the victim may argue that the parent's violation of the criminal parental responsibility law is proof by itself of the parent's negligence, so that the victim need not prove negligence in the civil lawsuit. Negligence that has been established by virtue of an earlier criminal conviction is known as "negligence per se." If a victim persuades the court that the parent's conviction of the parental responsibility crime is negligence per se, the victim will have a much easier time proving his or her case and winning damages from the parent.

Many Ways to Pay

Every state has its own set of parental liability laws. Some states limit parental liability to specific conduct by a child (such as reckless driving or discharging a firearm), while others have much broader laws (such as liability for failure to warn others of a child prone to violence). Every parent should learn the parental responsibility laws in effect in his or her state. Talk to an experienced personal injury lawyer in your area to get more information.

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