Parental Legal Responsibility for Injuries Caused by Children
States generally impose liability on parents for intentional actions by minor children that cause injuries or damage. In some states, parents also may bear liability for accidents caused by the carelessness of minor children. The idea is that victims have no other recourse for compensation, since children lack their own financial resources, and people who are injured through no fault of their own should not need to pay the resulting costs. Also, society expects parents to supervise their children to a reasonable extent so that they do not cause harm.
Did You Know?
Parental responsibility laws in Hawaii date from 1846, well before the islands became a US state.
Limits on Parental Liability and Damages Caps
Each state has its own definition for the type of harm that may lead to parental responsibility. It may cover most types of injuries and property damage, or it may be limited to certain situations. For example, the main California parental responsibility law applies to any act of willful misconduct by a minor that causes injuries, death, or property damage. On the other hand, New Jersey limits liability to property damage affecting schools and various types of public transportation.
Many states impose limits on the amount of damages that a victim can obtain from a parent who is being held liable for their child’s actions. California limits damages to $25,000 under the main parental responsibility law, although higher limits apply under a separate statute involving firearms. New York imposes a damages cap of $5,000. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Florida and several other states do not impose any damages cap. If you are a parent and are concerned about getting sued because of an accident caused by your child, you should research your state’s law to assess the scope of your liability. This may determine whether it is worthwhile to hire a lawyer to represent you.
Who Is a Minor Child?
Most states define a minor for the purposes of parental responsibility laws as a child younger than 18, but some impose responsibility only for the acts of children between certain ages. For example, the main New York law covers the acts of children who are over 10 and less than 18.
Car Accidents Caused by Children
Teenagers cause a disproportionate number of car accidents compared to other age groups. This results in part from their lack of experience behind the wheel and in part from their lesser ability to appreciate the risks of driving. For example, teens are especially prone to texting or talking on the phone while driving.
Some states have enacted laws that require a parent or guardian to sign a child's application for a driver's license in most situations. This may make them liable for negligence or misconduct by the child in operating a vehicle, regardless of whether the parent or guardian owned the vehicle or had any control over the child at the time. Even if a statute does not explicitly make a parent liable for their child's driving, though, they sometimes may be held liable under a common-law theory such as negligent entrustment. This means that the parent allowed the child to drive when they should have known that this would put other people on the road at risk. The family purpose doctrine also may make a parent liable in some states when their child causes an accident while driving the parent's car.