Parent Liability for a Child’s Acts: Car Accidents and Other Injuries

Parents may be financially responsible for car accidents and other harm caused by their child. Explore common parental liability laws.

Accidents and injuries involving underage children happen every day.

From teenage drivers to school bullies, careless or malicious behavior often leads to physical injuries, property damage, and financial losses suffered by innocent people of all ages.

Parental liability is a legal term for the responsibility a parent or guardian has for the negligent or criminal acts of their child.

While the laws vary by state, if you or your child are injured by another child, you may have recourse against the parent. There also may be other types of liability that apply to your case.

Here’s where we lay out parental responsibility laws and limits, and how parental liability may apply to your injury case.

Parental Liability for Car Accidents

In civil liability matters, the most common negligent acts of minors involve motor vehicle accidents. Underage drivers lack experience and may be prone to distractions. Unfortunately, cell phone use, especially texting while driving, is highest in the 15-to-29-year-old age group.

The tragic fact is that every day six teenagers are killed in car accidents, and hundreds more are injured. The more kids in the car, the higher the crash risk.

In most car accident cases, the parent’s auto insurance policy covers their household members, including teen drivers. In the event the available car insurance is not enough to cover your damages, you may have recourse through a personal injury lawsuit against the parents of the at-fault driver.

Many states have specific rules of liability for parents of underage drivers, and require parental acknowledgment at the time of the teen’s license application. These rules can strengthen your claim for compensation if you or a loved one are the victim of a negligent teen driver.

California parents are liable up to $25,000 for each harmful act: 

Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person or in any injury to the property of another shall be imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor for all purposes of civil damages, and the parent or guardian having custody and control shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages resulting from the willful misconduct.

…[T]he joint and several liability of the parent or guardian having custody and control of a minor under this subdivision shall not exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each tort of the minor, and in the case of injury to a person, imputed liability shall be further limited to medical, dental and hospital expenses incurred by the injured person, not to exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000). The liability imposed by this section is in addition to any liability now imposed by law.”

Liability Under the Family Car Doctrine

Many states don’t have specific parental liability laws. However several states, like Colorado, have some version of the Family Car Doctrine (also called the family purpose doctrine) that may provide recourse against the parent of an at-fault teen driver.

The Family Car Doctrine applies when:

  1. The teen driver’s negligence caused your injuries
  2. The parent is the head of the household
  3. The teen is a member of the same household
  4. The parent owns the vehicle or has control over it
  5. The parent gave the teen permission to use the vehicle

Vicarious Liability and Negligent Entrustment

Depending on the circumstances, victims may pursue the parents of an underage driver under vicarious liability or negligent entrustment laws.

Vicarious liability in this context means the parents are responsible for the acts of the child, especially if the teen driver was on an errand for the parent when they caused a traffic accident.

Similarly, parents may be liable under negligent entrustment laws for auto accidents caused by allowing an irresponsible or inexperienced teen to drive.

Example: Direct Parental Liability for Deadly Car Accident

Ben is 16 years old and lives at home with his parents. They recently bought him a used car, which he keeps in the driveway. He received his driver’s license three months ago and already has two speeding tickets.

Ben’s parents had a stern discussion with him about his driving habits and threatened to take away his car if he got another ticket.

Several days later, they received notice of another ticket but didn’t follow through on their threat. Instead, they spoke with Ben and decided to give him “one more chance.”

The following weekend, Ben was speeding down a local road with his girlfriend Sharon, and two of their friends.

Despite his girlfriend begging him to slow down, Ben was going too fast when he hit a slick spot and lost control of the car. The speeding car left the road and crashed into a tree.

All four teens were severely injured. Sharon died before the ambulance arrived.

Sharon’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ben and his parents. The lawsuit alleged Ben’s parents were negligent because:

  1. The parents knew Ben had a habit of speeding
  2. The parents knew or should have known Ben’s speeding put others at risk of harm
  3. The parents failed to take the reasonable action of grounding Ben from driving and taking away his car

The jury agreed that the parent’s negligence made them directly liable for Sharon’s tragic death.

Limitations of Parental Liability

American states and territories have statutes that designate the age range in which a parent or legal guardian can be held liable for the civil and criminal actions of their child.

Criminal actions vs civil actions:

  • Criminal actions result in the federal, state, or local government charging the person with a crime. For example, a person found guilty of assault and battery is criminally liable for their actions.
  • Civil actions are about seeking compensation for damages, even if the at-fault person broke the law. For example, if you’re in a rear-end collision with a drunk driver, you can seek compensation for your losses directly from the driver in a civil action. (The driver will also face criminal charges for DUI, separate from your civil action.)

Parental liability rules usually don’t apply to children younger than ten years of age. Children under ten years old are legally considered incapable of negligence, under the theory that they are too young to know better.

Age of Majority

As children get older, parental liability ends when the child reaches the “age of majority,” meaning the child is legally recognized as an adult.

In almost every state, the age of majority is 18 for civil matters and 17 for criminal actions. In Alabama and Nebraska, the age of majority is 19, and in Mississippi, it’s 21.

Emancipation

Parents and guardians are no longer responsible for emancipated minors. In some states, implied emancipation happens when a minor is legally married or enlists in the military.

Outside of marriage or military service, the emancipation of minors is a legal process that requires a judicial decree. Just because a teenager is seemingly “out on their own” doesn’t mean the parent is off the hook.

Other Harm Caused by Underage Children

When an underage child causes harm to innocent victims, the at-fault child’s parents or guardian can be found liable for the victim’s damages. A parent’s liability may also apply to their child’s criminal acts, such as vandalism. Each case is unique, involving specific negligent or willful acts.

All-Terrain Vehicle Accidents

Motor vehicle injuries caused by underage children also include ATV accidents. More than one out of four ATV injuries, including fatalities, involve riders under the age of sixteen.

You have every right to seek compensation from the parents of a child who was involved in an ATV accident with your child. In many cases, the parents’ homeowner’s insurance company provides liability coverage. Or the parents may have a separate liability policy for the ATVs.

Fights and Bullying at School

The problem of bullying and violence in schools continues to be a serious problem, affecting a significant number of children every day. Children may be bullied physically, emotionally, or sexually.

If a bully injures your child, you may have legal recourse against the bully’s parents as well as the school.

Similarly, you may have a case against another child’s parents for injuries from fights at school or on the bus.

Property and Other Damages

Parents are almost always responsible for their child’s willful and deliberate destruction of property, from broken windows to your kid’s smashed cell phone.

In this digital day and age, many states are also creating laws making parents liable for their child’s illegal online activities. Whether the child is guilty of cyber-bullying or downloading pirated music files, the parents may have to pay.

When You Need an Attorney

If you’ve suffered significant injuries from a car accident caused by an underage driver, or your child has been harmed by someone else’s child, you’ll need a good personal injury attorney to get the amount of compensation you deserve.

An experienced injury attorney can help in many ways, including:

  • Identifying all applicable insurance coverage, for example, if a teen has divorced parents, both parents’ liability coverage may apply
  • Proving direct parental liability by discovering important information you can’t get on your own, like driving history or cell phone records
  • Negotiating compensation on behalf of your child. Most states have special rules for “infant settlements”

Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation and represent injured clients on a contingency fee basis. In other words, the attorney won’t get paid unless your claim is settled or wins in court.

Injury claims involving parental liability for a minor child’s actions can be complicated. Don’t jeopardize the success of your claim. There’s no cost to find out what a personal injury lawyer can do for you and your family.

Parental Liability for Children Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>