When are Parents Liable for Injuries Caused by Their Children?

Parental liability is the legal responsibility parents have for the negligent acts of their children. Those acts can be transferred (or imputed) from the child to the parent. The parent then becomes vicariously liable. In other words, the parent acts as a substitute for the consequences of their child’s actions.

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

Age Limitations of Parental Liability

Most states have their own statutes setting the maximum ages a parent or legal guardian can be held liable for the acts of their children. This is called the Age of Majority. In 48 out of 50 states, the age of majority is 18 for civil matters and 17 for criminal ones. In civil matters, the following states have exceptions to the age of majority:

  • American Samoa and Puerto Rico = 14 y/o
  • Nebraska and Alabama = 19 y/o
  • Mississippi and Washington D.C. = 21 y/o

Once a child reaches the age of majority, his parents can no longer be held responsible for his actions. This includes responsibility for civil and criminal matters. The lowest age at which a minor’s actions can be imputed to his parents is 10 years old in most states.

In some cases, minors can petition the court to be emancipated from their parents. Emancipation legally frees a child from his or her parents’ authority, and frees the parents from liability for their child’s actions.

Scope of Parental Liability

The circumstances of the child’s actions determine the existence and degree of parental liability. Each case is unique, involving specific negligent or willful acts. In civil matters, the most common negligent acts of minors involve car accidents. Willful acts usually involve assaultive behavior.

In most states, to hold parents liable for injuries caused by their children, a victim must prove the parents’ negligence contributed to their child’s actions. To determine the degree of that contribution, the courts rely on Common Law (previous court decisions), and the “Reasonable and Foreseeable” rule.

  • Reasonable means the parents could, or should have known their child had a tendency to act in a dangerous manner. Other parents in a similar position would have known about the danger.
  • Foreseeable means the parents could, or should have been able to foresee that their child was capable of causing injury. Other parents in a similar position would have seen the possibility for injury.

Example: Foreseeable 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.

He made no effort to hide the tickets from his parents. They also know about the tickets because Ben’s court dates were mailed to their home. They had a stern discussion with Ben 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. They spoke with Ben, and gave him one last chance before taking his car away. The following week, Ben was speeding down a local road and crashed into another vehicle, causing extensive property damage and injuring the passengers.

The injured parties sued Ben and his parents. They said the parents should have known about their son’s reckless driving, and should have taken appropriate action to stop him from speeding. They alleged it was foreseeable Ben would eventually cause an accident.

The parents responded by stating they can’t be held liable because they did everything they could to stop their son from speeding. They said they weren’t in the car at the time, and therefore couldn’t foresee he was going to cause a collision.

Legal Arguments

After hearing the evidence, the court decided the parents were liable for Ben’s actions, which caused the car accident and injuries. The court determined the parents were in a position to know their son’s driving habits. He lived in their home and they knew about his tickets, but they still didn’t do the responsible thing as parents and take his car away.

They knew about Ben’s reckless driving, so it was entirely foreseeable to them that he’d eventually cause an accident. There were also no barriers between Ben and his parents, which would have made taking his car away unreasonably difficult.

Example: Unforeseeable assault

Mike was 15 years old, and had a reputation for starting fights with some of his classmates. On more than one occasion, he was warned by the principal to stop his aggressive behavior before he seriously hurt someone. Otherwise, Mike had an excellent scholastic record, and always behaved well at home.

There were no other indicators of Mike’s tendency toward violence. His parents attended the traditional parent-teacher meetings, and at no time did his teachers, or any other school officials, express concern that their son displayed violent behavior.

One day, Mike started a fight. This time he seriously injured another boy by willfully kicking him so hard he broke several of the boy’s ribs.

The injured boy’s parents sued Mike and his parents for their son’s injuries. They said Mike’s parents had every reasonable opportunity to admonish their son, and to take appropriate action to stop him from further aggressive behavior.

They said Mike’s parents should have known about their son’s propensity for violence. As a result, it was entirely foreseeable for them to expect that their son would eventually cause serious injury to another youngster.

Legal Arguments

After hearing the evidence, the court decided Mike’s parents were not liable for his actions. For Mike’s parents to be held vicariously liable for his willful acts, they must have had a reasonable opportunity to know about his violent behavior.

There was no indication of Mike’s behavioral problems at home, and his parents had no reason to expect his behavior was different at school.

In the absence of any indicators at home, Mike’s parents had a right to expect that his teachers or principal would inform them of his aggressive behavior. The school staff wholly failed to do so. As a result, the court found it was unforeseeable for Mike’s parents to know of their son’s violent behavior, therefore, they couldn’t do anything about it.

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