Parental Liability for Injuries Caused by Their Children

Learn how parental liability laws can help you get compensation for injuries caused by someone else’s child. You have the right to recover your losses.

Accidents and injuries involving underage children happen every day. From teen drivers to school bullies, careless or malicious behavior often leads to physical injuries 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 act 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.

Here’s where we lay out parental liability laws and limits, when parental liability commonly comes into play, and how you can begin to build a strong claim after an injury.

Parental Liability Laws and Limits

In accident cases, parents can be held financially responsible for injuries and property damage caused by their child. A parent’s liability may also apply to their child’s criminal acts, such as vandalism.

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 acts of their children.

There’s a difference between criminal actions and 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.

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.

Each state has its own set of rules for parental liability. For example, some states have special rules for parents who allow an underage child to drive. Other states set limits on the parent’s financial responsibility according to the type of damage caused by the child.

Find your location on this table of Parental Responsibility Laws in All 50 States.

Parents and guardians are no longer responsible for emancipated children. 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.

Don’t let a parent tell you they aren’t responsible for injuries caused by their child. Talk to a personal injury attorney to review your options for seeking compensation.

Harm Caused by Underage Children

When underage children harm innocent victims, the at-fault child’s parents or guardian can be found liable for the victim’s damages. Each case is unique, involving specific negligent or willful acts.

Motor Vehicle Accidents Top the List

In civil matters, the most common negligent acts of minors involve car 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.¹ The more kids in the car, the higher the crash risk.

Many states have specific rules of liability for parents of underage drivers. These rules can strengthen your claim for compensation if you or a loved one are victims of an at-fault teen driver.

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.²

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 policy has applicable 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 on the hook 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.

What Counts as Parental Liability?

Parents can be held responsible for the actions of their child in two general ways:

  • Vicarious Liability:  Similar to an employer’s liability for harm caused by an employee, a parent can be held responsible for property damages and injuries caused by their child, even though the parent was not directly involved.
  • Direct Liability: Parents or guardians who know that their child needs to be controlled and fail to take reasonable action to control the child may be directly liable for resulting injuries caused by the child. Legally, failing to prevent the child from causing harm is “negligent supervision.”

In most states, to hold parents directly liable for injuries caused by their children, a victim must prove the parents’ negligence contributed to their child’s actions.

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 “another 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.

Building a Strong Injury Claim

The majority of injuries caused by underaged children result from car accidents. That means dealing with the parents’ auto insurance carrier.

If you’re the victim of a teen driver, what you do and say at the scene can make a difference in the success of your claim.

  • Check for Injuries and Call 911: Tell the dispatcher if anyone is injured, the vehicles are severely damaged, or traffic is blocked. If the driver who hit you appears to be a teenager, report that, too.
  • Keep Your Distance: If you’re able to render aid to the injured, do the best you can until help arrives. That does not extend to consoling the at-fault driver. Don’t apologize, and don’t make excuses for what happened. Never say things like “It’s not your fault” or “Don’t worry, everyone is okay.” Anything you say can be used against you by the insurance company.
  • Accept Medical Help: Let paramedics treat you at the scene and transport you to the hospital if they say you should go. Refusing medical attention at the scene gives the insurance company the perfect excuse to deny your injury claim.
  • Photographs and Video: Use your phone to take as many photographs and videos as you safely can of the accident scene, including the position of the vehicles, skid marks, damage to the vehicles, and other people involved in the crash.
  • Exchange Information: Try to collect driver contact and insurance information. Also jot down the number of passengers in the other car, and a description of each person, including how they are acting.
  • Witness Statements: Anyone who saw the accident could be a valuable witness on your behalf. Ask for the person’s name and contact information, and have them sign and date any statement they may write.

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 don’t charge for their initial 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 can be complicated. Don’t jeopardize the success of your claim. There’s no cost to find out what a skilled injury attorney can do for you and your family.

Video: Parental Liability for Injuries Caused by Children

Parental Liability Questions & Answers

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 >>